Desert One | Magazine of the Air and Space Forces (2023)

For some, the ongoing political debate over the combat readiness of today's US military stirs memories of an ancient event that, more than anything else, has come to symbolize the disastrously "hollow" forces of the post-war era. Vietnam.

It all began on the night of April 24, 1980, when a supposedly elite US military force launched a daring but failed attempt to rescue fellow Americans and their nation's honor from captivity in Tehran. In the early hours of April 25, the effort ended in a fiery disaster in a remote location in Iran known ever since as Desert One.

This failed attempt to rescue 53 hostages from the US Embassy in Tehran resulted in the deaths of five US Air Force men and three Marines, serious injuries to five other soldiers, and the loss of eight planes. That failure would haunt the US military for years and plague some of the key players for the rest of their lives.

One of them, Air Force Col. James Kyle, called it "the most colossal episode of hope, despair and tragedy I have experienced in nearly three decades of military service."

The countdown to this tragedy began exactly 20 years ago, in January 1979. A popular uprising in Iran forced the sudden abdication and flight into exile of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran's longtime ruler and staunch ally of the United States. In the aftermath of this event, a government led, in name, by Shahpur Bakhtiar and Abolhassan Bani Sadr came to power. Within months, they too were marginalized, replaced by fundamentalist Shia Muslim clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

On November 4, two weeks after President Jimmy Carter allowed the shah into the US for medical care, 3,000 radical Iranian "students" stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took hostage to 66 Americans. Mission chief L. Bruce Laingen and two aides were detained separately at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

The students demanded that the Shah be returned for trial. Khomeini supporters blocked all efforts to free the hostages.

Thirteen black and female hostages would later be released as a “humanitarian” gesture, but the humiliating captivity for the rest would continue for 14 months.

bowl of rice

Carter, who was facing a re-election battle in 1980, was strongly in favor of a diplomatic solution, but his national security adviser, Zbignew Brzezinski, instructed the Pentagon to begin planning a rescue mission or retaliatory strikes if the hostages they were injured. In response, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General David C. Jones, established a small secret planning group, dubbed the "Rice Bowl", to study American options for a rescue effort.

It quickly became apparent how difficult this would be.

The first hurdle was the location. Tehran was isolated, surrounded by more than 700 miles of desert and mountains in every direction. This cut off the city from immediate attack by US air or naval forces. Also, the embassy was in the heart of the congested city with more than four million people.

A bigger hurdle, however, was the condition of the US military, which has plummeted in size and quality in the seven years since it made a near-complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Among the victims of the post-Vietnam cutbacks was the once powerful joint Army and Air Force special operations forces that had performed feats of great bravery and military skill in Southeast Asia.

The only exception was an elite unit of soldiers recently formed to counter the danger of international terrorism. This unit, called the Delta Force, was commanded by Army Colonel Charles Beckwith, a battle-tested special forces officer. Delta, which had just received operational certification after conducting a hostage rescue exercise, was instructed to start planning for the actual operation at the Tehran embassy.

The immediate question was how to get Delta close enough to do its job. Leading the planners trying to solve this conundrum was Army Major General James Vaught, a veteran of three wars, with experience as a ranger and airborne, but no exposure to special operations or multi-service missions. Due to the need for extreme secrecy, he was denied the use of an existing JCS or service organization. Vaught had to assemble his planning team and the joint task force that would carry out the mission from widely dispersed sources.

One of the first selections was Kyle, a well-respected veteran of air commando operations in Vietnam, who would help plan the air mission and serve as the on-site commander at Desert One.

When Beckwith ruled out skydiving, helicopters became the best option to reach Tehran, despite doubts from Beckwith and other Vietnam veterans about their reliability. The Navy's RH-53D Sea Stallions, which were used as airborne minesweepers, were chosen due to their superior range and load-carrying capabilities and their ability to operate from an aircraft carrier.

Even Navy Sea Stallions could not fly from the Indian Ocean to Tehran without refueling. After testing and rejecting alternatives, the task force opted to use Air Force EC-130 Hercules transports equipped with temporary 18,000-gallon fuel tanks to resupply the helicopters en route to Tehran.

find the place

However, this decision led to the requirement to find a location in the Iranian desert where ground refueling could take place. This required terrain that could support the weight of the gas-powered Hercules.

US intelligence found and explored such a location, some 200 miles southeast of Tehran. In planning and training, this place was known as Desert One.

Since the RH-53s were Navy aircraft, the Pentagon assigned Navy pilots to fly them and added Navy co-pilots to provide experience on ground assault missions.

This combination soon proved impractical, as many of the Navy pilots were unable or unwilling to master the unfamiliar and difficult tasks of long-range, low-level flight over ground at night using primitive night vision goggles.

In December, most of the Navy pilots were replaced by Marines handpicked for their low-altitude, night-flying experience. The mission ended with 16 pilots: 12 Marines, three Navy and one Air Force.

Chosen to lead the helicopter element was Lt. Col. Edward Seiffert, a veteran H-53 pilot who had flown long-range search and rescue missions in Vietnam and had considerable experience flying with night vision goggles.

Beckwith described Seiffert as "a serious, humorless officer, some seemed stiff, who wanted to get on with the job".

Helicopter and Delta crews never developed the coordination and confidence essential for complex, high-stress combat missions. Possibly this was caused by the disjointed nature of the task force and their training.

While the helicopter crews worked in Yuma, Arizona, the Delta Force members did most of their training in the North Carolina wilderness. Other Army personnel were training in Europe. The Air Force crews that would participate in the mission trained in Florida or Guam, thousands of miles away in the Pacific.

The entire operation was run by a loosely integrated team in Washington, D.C., who insisted that all elements be further isolated through a tightly controlled flow of information that would protect operational security.

“Ours was a tenuous amalgamation of forces united by a strong common desire to succeed, but it took time for us to come together as a team,” Kyle wrote in his mission narrative.

Meanwhile, Beckwith and his team were desperate for detailed information about the physical layout of the embassy, ​​the number and location of the Iranian guards, and most importantly, the location of the hostages.

six buildings

Without that information, Delta had to plan a search of up to six buildings in the embassy complex where the hostages might have been held. This required Beckwith to increase the size of his assault force, which meant more helicopters would be needed.

No intelligence was coming out of Iran because Carter had dismantled the CIA's spy network due to the agency's role in overthrowing governments in Vietnam and Latin America.

It would be months before agents could be deployed to Iran to provide the detailed intelligence that, according to Beckwith, was "the difference between failure and success, between humiliation and pride, between losing lives and saving them."

Despite all the obstacles, the task force in mid-March 1980 developed what it considered a workable plan, with all the various operational elements confident in its ability to carry it out.

The plan was impressive in its scope and complexity, bringing together dozens of planes and thousands of men from all four forces and from units scattered from Arizona to Okinawa, Japan.

The plan was this:

On the first night, six Air Force C-130s carrying 132 Delta commandos, Army Rangers and support personnel and helicopter fuel would fly from the island of Masirah off the coast of Oman more than 1,000 miles to Desert One and refuel. . Air Force KC-135 tanker in flight.

Eight Navy RH-53Ds would take off from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier about 50 miles south of the Iranian coast and fly more than 600 miles to Desert One.

After resupplying, the helicopters would take the rescue force to a safe house in the hills about 80 kilometers southeast of Tehran and then fly to a separate safe house nearby. The C-130s would return to Masirah, refueling in flight again.

The following night, Delta would be driven to the embassy in vehicles obtained by the agents. A team of Rangers would rescue the three Americans held at the Foreign Office.

As the ground units freed the hostages, helicopters flew from their hideout towards the embassy and the Foreign Ministry.

Three Air Force AC-130 guns would fly overhead to protect the rescue force from any Iranian counterattack and to destroy fighter jets at Tehran's airport.

The helicopters would take the rescue force and free the hostages to an abandoned airbase in Manzariyeh, some 80 kilometers southwest of Tehran, which would be seized and secured by a ranger company flying C-130s.

The helicopters would be destroyed and the C-141s, coming from Saudi Arabia, would take the entire group to a base in Egypt.

"Now a Reality"

After five months of planning, organizing, training, and a series of increasingly complex rehearsals, Kyle recalled, “The ability to rescue our people as hostages, which didn't exist on November 4, 1979, was now a reality.”

The team still needed Carter's permission to act.

Although the Shah moved to Panama and then Egypt, the 53 Americans remained hostage and the public grew increasingly impatient. Finally, at a White House meeting of his top advisers on April 11, Carter resigned from diplomacy. “I told everyone that it was time for us to take our hostages home; their safety and our national honor were at stake,” Carter said in his memoir.

Five days later, Jones, Vaught, and Beckwith briefed Carter at the White House on the plans for the rescue mission and expressed confidence in his ability to carry it out.

Beckwith recalled Carter telling them: “I don't want to do this operation, but we don't have any other recourse. … We are going to do this operation.”

Carter later told Jones: “This is a military operation; you will execute it. … I don't want anyone else in this room involved.

The daring operation was codenamed "Eagle Claw." The scheduled date was April 24-25.

Almost immediately, the forces began to move towards their starting points. As of April 24, 44 aircraft were stationed at six widely separated locations to carry out or support the rescue mission. The RH-53s were already at Nimitz, where they had been stored with minimal care for months, but a frantic effort brought them to what Seiffert and Navy officials insisted were the best mechanical conditions on launch day.

Beckwith and Seiffert agreed that they would need a minimum of six flyable helicopters at Desert One for the mission to proceed. Beckwith ordered 10 helicopters on the carrier to cover potential failures, but the Navy claimed it could store no more than eight on the hangar deck.

Delta and many Air Force planes stopped briefly at a Russian-built airfield in Wadi Qena, Egypt, which would serve as Vaught's headquarters for the mission. While in Wadi Qena on April 23, the task force received an intelligence report that all 53 hostages were being held at the embassy chancellery. Since the solid source of this information was not known, Beckwith did not trust her enough to reduce his attack force, which may have been a critical decision.

The next day, with Delta Force and support elements at Masirah and helicopter crews at Nimitz, Vaught received the final weather report. It promised the virtually clear weather the mission required.

"Execute Mission"

Vaught sent a message to all units: “Execute the mission as planned. Good luck, go with God."

“There was applause and fists were raised in the air with thumbs up. … It was exciting for all of us,” Kyle wrote.

This emotional elation would turn to despair in about 12 hours.

The mission began at dusk on April 24 with almost no problems. Kyle and Beckwith flew from Masirah in the lead MC-130 Combat Talon with some of the Delta soldiers and an Air Force combat controller team. At about the same time, Seiffert led the helicopter force, call sign "Bluebird", out of Nimitz and headed for the Iranian coast, 60 miles away.

The helicopters were equipped with two advanced navigation systems, but the pilots found them unreliable and relied primarily on visual navigation while cruising at 200 feet. “We were fat, dumb, and happy,” Seiffert recalled.

About 100 miles into Iran, the Talon ran into a thin cloud that reduced visibility but was not a problem at her cruising altitude of 2,000 feet. The cloud was a mass of suspended dust, called a "haboob", common in the Iranian desert. Air Force weather experts supporting the mission knew it was a possibility, but apparently never told the mission pilots. Kyle said he considered sending a warning to the helicopters, but decided it wasn't significant.

When MC-130 ran into a much thicker cloud afterwards, it tried to alert Seiffert, but the message was never transmitted. It was just one of the communication errors that would affect the mission.

The cloud of dust that was a minor irritation to the Combat Talon became prolonged torture for the helicopter pilots, who were trying to fly in formation and visually navigate at 200 feet while wearing rudimentary night vision goggles. The visibly shaken Navy airmen later told Beckwith and Kyle that the hours in the milky dust cloud were the worst experience of their lives, which for some included combat in Vietnam.

Things started to go wrong even before the dust cloud.

Less than two hours into the flight, a warning light came on in the Bluebird Six's cockpit. The indicator, called the Blade Inspection Method, or BIM, warned of a possible leak from the pressurized nitrogen that fills the Sea Stallion's hollow rotors. On the H-53 models that the Marines were used to flying, the BIM indicator usually meant a crack in one of the massive blades, which had caused rotor failure and several fatalities in the past. As a result, Marine H-53 pilots were trained to land quickly after a BIM warning.

However, Navy RH-53s had newer BIM systems that generally did not predict blade failure. To that date, no RH-53 had suffered a broken blade and the manufacturer had determined that the helicopter could be flown safely for up to 79 hours at reduced speed following a BIM alert.

up to seven

However, the Bluebird Six pilots were unaware of this. Thinking the craft was unsafe to fly, the crew abandoned it in the desert and jumped aboard a helicopter that landed to help.

The mission was reduced to seven helicopters.

Farther inland, the remaining helicopters were struggling with the cloud of dust, which reduced visibility to meters and raised cabin temperatures. Although all the pilots were having a hard time, the Bluebird Five was really suffering as progressive failures in the electrical system took away most of the pilot's essential flight and navigation instruments. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander of the Navy. Rodney Davis, "was flying a partial panel, needle ball, wet compass, a real vertigo-inducer," Seiffert said.

Fighting the disconcerting effects of vertigo, with his inner ear telling him the plane is spinning while his eyes say it isn't, and not knowing the location of the other helicopters or the weather on Desert One, Davis decided to turn back.

Davis was unaware that he was about 25 minutes from clear air, which prevailed until Desert One, because everyone maintained strict radio silence to avoid detection.

The mission was now down to a minimum of six helicopters.

Meanwhile, the lead C-130 landed at Desert One and Beckwith's commandos rushed to block the dirt road through the site.

Within minutes, they stopped a bus carrying 44 people at one end of the site and at the opposite end had to fire an anti-tank round at a tanker truck that refused to stop. The tanker driver jumped from his burning vehicle and fled in a following pickup truck.

Despite fears that the mission could be compromised, combat controllers quickly installed a portable navigation system and runway lights to guide the other aircraft on the mission to Desert One.

Soon the rest of Delta Force was on the ground and all three EC-130s were in place to resupply the helicopters, which were due to arrive 20 minutes later.

But, as Kyle found out months later, someone miscalculated the helicopters' flight time by 55 minutes, and the first Bluebird was over an hour away. Finally, the Sea Stallions emerged from the darkness, coming one or two instead of a formation, and from different directions.

After considerable anxiety, the count reached six helicopters on the ground at Desert One and hopes for a successful rescue rose again.

But as the helicopters scrambled through the unexpectedly deep sand to get into position behind the tankers, one of them cut its engines.

Bluebird Two had suffered a complete failure of its secondary hydraulics, which was beyond repair and left it with minimal pressure on its flight controls. Although the pilot seemed willing to try to hide the sick bird from him, Seiffert rebuffed him.

Kyle tried to convince Seiffert to take the helicopter, but he refused, warning that flying the only system with so much weight and high temperature could result in a control lockup and a crash that would kill not only the crew, but also others. the Delta controls in the box. . Kyle then asked Beckwith if he could reduce his assault force to go with five helicopters, but he was equally adamant about not changing his plans.

eagle claw flaw

It seemed clear that the mission had to be aborted.

Kyle informed Vaught of the situation via satellite radio and the task force commander relayed this to Jones and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown at the Pentagon. When the news reached the White House, Carter asked Brown to get Beckwith's opinion. When told that Beckwith thought an abortion was necessary, Carter said: "We'll take his advice."

Eagle Claw failed, and the tense anticipation of success turned to frustration and anger.

Now Kyle was left with the unrehearsed task of getting everyone out of Iran. Due to extended time on the ground, one of the C-130s was low on fuel and had to leave early. To allow the tanker to move, Kyle instructed Marine Major James Schaefer to reposition his helicopter. With the nosewheel flattened, Schaefer was unable to roll and tried to take off to move the bird from him, kicking up a cloud of blinding dust.

As Kyle watched in horror, the helicopter slid sideways, striking the C-130 with spinning rotors and starting a raging fire. Red-hot pieces of metal scorched the sky as munitions on both planes exploded.

Some of the Delta commandos boarded the C-130 and exited through the side door as Air Force loadmasters and high-ranking soldiers tried to stem the spreading panic. The men were helping the wounded escape from hell.

Shells ejected from the burning wreckage struck the three nearby helicopters and their crews quickly fled.

Many of those on Desert One that night credit Kyle with restoring order to the chaotic scene and safely evacuating all living men and salvageable equipment. But on the burning funeral pyre of Eagle Claw's shattered hopes, they left the bodies of eight brave men.

Departing from the C-130s, Delta medics treated four badly burned men, including Schaefer, his co-pilot and two airmen. “We left many hopes and dreams behind in Desert One, but nightmares and despair came with us…and would continue to haunt us for years, perhaps forever,” Kyle later wrote.

Holloway investigation

Although Carter went on television the next day to announce the failure of the mission and accept blame, Congress and the Pentagon launched investigations to determine the motives for the tragedy. The Pentagon investigation was conducted by a board of three retired and three serving officers, representing all four services; it was led by retired Admiral James L. Holloway III. The commission's report listed 23 areas "that bothered us professionally about areas of the mission where there appeared to be weaknesses."

“We are concerned that the critical tone of our discussion could be misconstrued as an indictment of the brave and capable men who planned and executed this operation. We found not an iota of evidence of negligence or culpable incompetence,” the report says.

The commission concluded that the mission concept and plan were feasible and had a reasonable chance of success.

But, he noted, “the rescue mission was a high-risk operation. …Individuals and equipment were called upon to perform at the upper limits of human capacity and team capacity. There was little room to make up for mistakes or bad luck."

The main criticism was the "ad hoc" nature of the task force, a chain of command that the commission considered unclear, and an emphasis on operational secrecy that it considered excessive.

The commission also said the chances of success would have been increased if more support helicopters had been provided, if all mission components had been rehearsed and if helicopter pilots had better access to weather information and reports. HR data. BIM 53s Alert System.

And he suggested that Air Force helicopter pilots might be better qualified for the mission.

However, the report also stated: "Helicopter crews demonstrated great dedication to mission accomplishment by their reluctance to abort under exceptionally difficult conditions." It concluded that "two factors combined to directly cause the mission to be aborted: an unexpected helicopter failure rate and low-visibility flight conditions en route to Desert One."

Beckwith openly blamed the helicopter pilots immediately after the mission. However, in his criticism of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he attributed the failure to Murphy's Law and the use of an ad hoc organization for such a difficult mission. “We go out and find parts and people and equipment, put them together from time to time and then ask them to carry out a highly complex mission,” he said. "All the parts worked, but not necessarily as a team."

He recommended creating an organization that was, in essence, the prototype for the Special Operations Command that Congress mandated in 1986.

Kyle, in his book on the mission, rejected the Holloway commission's conclusions and basically blamed Seiffert and the helicopter pilots for not getting out of the dust cloud, for not using their radios to keep the formation intact, and for the three helicopters. aborted.

He argued that the task force never had fewer than seven flyable helicopters. All that was missing, he wrote to her, was "the courage to try."

Seiffert praised Beckwith and Kyle as professional warriors, but disagreed with their criticism of him and his helicopter pilots. He likened his decision to ground the helicopter with the faulty hydraulics to Beckwith's refusal to cut off his assault force, refusing to question the two pilots who had aborted earlier.

Seiffert said he was confident that if they had reached Tehran, the mission would have been successful. Kyle was also right to write that: "It is my considered opinion that we have come close to success."

Beckwith wrote in his memoirs that he had recurring nightmares after Desert One. However, he noted, "I never dreamed at any time whether or not the mission would have been successful."

Otto Kreisher is the national security reporter for Copley News Service, based in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, "To Protect the Force," appeared in the November 1998 issue.

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