Sweeping changes in the special operations community resulted from the debacle at Desert One.
During the night of April 24th and into the morning of April 25th 1980, Operation Eagle Claw went from a daring and innovative rescue operation to bring home the 52 American hostages held by Iran to a failed mission that changed the way the American military conducted such missions. The failure of Operation Eagle Claw is also considered to be at least in part responsible for the ascendance of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980.
Setting the Scene
Three weeks before the rescue mission was to take place a very remote airfield in the Iranian desert was surveyed and infrared lights and strobes placed to assist pilots landing at the site. The field itself was checked and determined to be hard-packed sand- perfectly suitable for the rescue aircraft. The operational plan dictated that the site, dubbed “Desert One” would be secured by United States Army Delta Force and Rangers operators and about 6,000 gallons of jet fuel for the helos would be pre-positioned there.
Putting the Pieces in Place
US Air Force assets were the three Lockheed EC-130E Commando Solos, using the call signs Republic 4, 5, and 6, and the three MC-130E Combat Talon 1s, using the call signs Dragon 1, 2, and 3. The EC-130Es carried fuel bladders and personnel. MC-130Es carried personnel, supplies, and equipment. Eight US Navy RH-53D Sea Stallions normally assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM)-16 Seahawks and HM-14 Vanguard went aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68). Ostensibly aboard the carrier for a minesweeping mission, the helos were thoroughly checked and rechecked by their combined Navy and Marine Corps crews. They would use the call signs Bluebeard 1 through 8.
A Not-So Simple Plan
The overall plan was to fly to Desert One, refuel, then continue on to Desert Two, located 52 miles from Tehran. The American force would overnight at Desert Two and conduct the actual rescue the second day. The plan became more daring and risky with each hour. The Delta operators would drive from Desert Two to the American Embassy in Tehran to free the hostages. Army Rangers were to capture a nearby air base where Lockheed C-141 Starlifters would land, grab the hostages and their rescuers, and depart Iran. Other US Army troops were tasked with disabling electrical power. Even USAF AC-130 Spectre gunships would get in on the action by providing on-call close support of troops in contact on the ground in the Tehran area.
Aboard the Nimitz and the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CVA-43), efforts were underway to avoid blue-on-blue (friendly fire) accidents. The Iranians were also operating Grumman F-14A Tomcats and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs at the time. Because they were tasked to provide air cover over Tehran, the similar Navy and Marine carrier-based aircraft were adorned with “invasion stripes” by the crews. Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8) aboard Nimitz and CVW-14 aboard Coral Sea painted these stripes on the upper and lower surfaces of the right wings of their aircraft.
Fighter Squadron (VF)-41 Black Aces and VF-84 Jolly Rogers used red and yellow stripes on their F-14A Tomcats. Attack Squadron (VA)-35 Black Panthers and Light Attack Squadron (VA)-82 Marauders and VA-86 Sidewinders aboard Nimitz painted orange stripes on their A-6E Intruders and A-7E Corsair IIs. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA)-323 Death Rattlers and VMFA-531 Grey Ghosts painted red and yellow stripes on their F-4N Phantom IIs. VA-196 Main Battery and VA-27 Royal Maces and VA-97 Warhawks aboard Coral Sea painted orange stripes on their A-6E Intruders and A-7E Corsair IIs. All stripes were bordered with thin black stripes.
Off to a Good Enough Start
Things started out well. Departing from Masirah in Oman, the airlifters negotiated the first leg of their mission well. Except for some damage to one of the MC-130Es (Dragon 1) caused by a hard landing (the aircraft remained flyable), the protection personnel and some additional troops landed without incident after dodging habitation and the Zagros Mountains. The American troops on the ground deep within Iran prepared the site for the arrival of the Navy helos. The second two MC-130Es landed and offloaded the personnel and equipment aboard, and then returned to base in Oman to prepare for the next night’s missions. It was at this point that the operation began to unravel.
Why There? Why Then?
A tanker truck smuggling fuel came upon the site and was blown up by a Ranger team controlling the roads in the area. Although not a specific threat to the mission, the explosion and fire brought the clandestine site to the attention of everyone within miles. The incoming helos even used it to help them find Desert One. Soon thereafter, at roughly 2130 local time, a bus appeared on the scene driving on what was to be used as a runway. As a civilian vehicle it was stopped and the 40-plus passengers held. It was about time for the helos, or what was left of them, to arrive.
Dominoes Start to Topple
The first hint of trouble was aboard Bluebeard 6. The crew received a sensor notification that a rotor blade was cracked. Bluebeard 6 was sanitized of all material that might give the mission away and then abandoned in the Iranian desert. Bluebird 8 picked up the crew and continued toward Desert One. The other helos then encountered first a small, and then a much larger, “haboob”, essentially a hundred mile long persistent dust storm suspended in the air up to thousands of feet high. Unable to avoid these dangerous weather phenomena, Bluebeards flew through them both. Bluebeard 5 turned around and landed but the other helos did observe not them land. Bluebeard 5 eventually took off and headed toward Desert One. Another Bluebeard was forced to return to base (RTB) with instrumentation problems. This left six of the original Bluebeards available for the airlift to Desert 2. Ironically the Air Force airlifters had encountered the haboobs but failed to pass word to the helos inbound to Desert One.
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Still Do-Able But Marginal
Now running behind schedule, the six Bluebeards made their way to Desert One and landed by 0130 local time in what the haboob left behind- ankle-deep fine dust that rotors stirred up and turbine engine intakes ingested. When Bluebeard 2 landed it was determined that its secondary hydraulic system had gone down, leaving the force with only five flyable RH-53Ds to carry on with the mission. There was heated discussion about the status of Bluebeard 2 but the Navy understandably refused to fly it on the mission.
The on-scene commander, legendary Delta commander Charlie Beckwith, did not want to reduce the size of the rescue team to fit on only five helicopters. Available intelligence about the location of the hostages within the Embassy indicated potential alternate plans might have been successful, but this information was discounted. Fearing potential problems with getting the cranky helos back into the air after they spent many hours shut down at Desert 2, the decision was reached to abort. The decision was run up the chain of command all the way to President Jimmy Carter, who concurred. Having spent two and a half hours at Desert One, the only thing left to do was get everyone out of the Iranian desert and back to Masirah.
Collision and Tragedy
Because the EC-130Es had been idling on the ground for so long Republic 4 was short of fuel. Bluebeard 4 was also short of fuel. In order to satisfy the fuel needs of these two aircraft some shuffling had to be done. Bluebird 3 was located behind Republic 4. In order to refuel Bluebeard 4 the two helos needed to switch positions. When Bluebeard 3 transitioned to hover taxi a tremendous dust and cloud was created. An Air Force controller was staggered backward by the dust and sand blasted into the air by Bluebeard 3. The pilot of Bluebeard 3 interpreted the controller’s movements as directions and he began forward movement. Spotted close to Republic 4 to begin with, it didn’t take long for Bluebeard 3 to clip the vertical stabilizer of the EC-130E and then crash into the cockpit area of Republic 4.
Bugging Out For Good
Eight servicemen died in the explosion and fire that followed. Five of the 14 aircrew on the EC-130E Republic 4 (Major Richard L. Bakke, Major Harold L. Lewis, Major Lyn D. McIntosh, Captain Charles T. McMillan, and Technical Sergeant Joel C. Mayo), and three of the five aircrew aboard the RH-53D Bluebeard 3 (Staff Sergeant Dewey L. Johnson, Sergeant John D. Harvey, and Corporal George N. Holmes). Several troops already loaded inside Republic 4 were able to abandon the aircraft. Miraculously there were no other deaths and few injuries among the scores of other personnel then on the ground at Desert One. The remaining RH-53Ds were abandoned in place, their crews piling aboard the remaining two EC-130Es. In their haste to depart the scene, which was drawing more and more interest by the minute, the Bluebeard crews failed to destroy all of the RH-53Ds themselves or weapons and highly classified mission documentation inside them.
Recovery and Scatter Plan
Republic 5 and Republic 6 brought the remaining personnel back to Masirah. There two of the C-141s that would have carried the hostages out of Iran instead flew the badly burned pilot and copilot of Bluebeard 3 and the other wounded personnel, as well as the remainder of the Delta troops, Rangers, and other personnel out of the area to an abandoned Russian airfield in Egypt at Wadi Kena. The wounded were then flown to Ramstein Air Force Base (AFB) in Germany for treatment.
Out of the Bad Came Some Good
The debacle at Desert One has had several lasting and profound effects on the way American armed forces, and especially special operations personnel, conduct their serious business. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) became operational on April 16th 1987. USSOCOM oversees and assigns special operations forces from each of the services, improving training and coordination of these highly specialized operators.
Building a Better SOAR
The majority of the nation’s special operations-capable aircraft are now equipped with systems that would likely have helped the operators in the desert that night at Desert One. The Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the Night Stalkers, is equipped with Boeing Vertol MH-47G Chinook and Sikorsky MH-60M Black Hawk helicopters that are capable of in-flight refueling and are equipped with terrain and weather avoidance systems, and lighting systems that are compatible with night vision goggles. The USAF also flies similarly equipped special operations aircraft.
Five things you might not know about Operation Eagle Claw:
- Project Honey Badger was to be the second rescue attempt. Personnel and aircraft requirements began in manageable scale but numbers quickly mushroomed to the point where it would take a more than fifty aircraft and a battalion (read hundreds) of troops. Because the RH-53Ds failed the first time around, it was determined that a special short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft would be needed…
- That aircraft, the YMC-130H, was at heart a Lockheed Hercules four-engine airlifter heavily modified to allow it to land and takeoff inside a stadium in Tehran and then recover aboard an aircraft carrier to offload wounded. Operation Credible Sport took an MC-130H Combat Talon assault airlifter and added rocket thrusters to slow the aircraft on landing and get it off the ground quickly on takeoff. Credible Sport would create the world’s largest and heaviest STOL transport. If it worked. Which it did not, failing spectacularly when the rockets used to slow the aircraft were fired while still airborne during a full-up systems test at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) on October 29th
- Project Honey Badger exercises continued through the remainder of President Jimmy Carter’s term and through the 1980 Presidential election. When Ronald Reagan became the President the exercises were halted as unnecessary. Some of the tactics created for Project Honey Badger are still used by special operators today.
- Two of the Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helos abandoned in the desert, Bluebeard 2 and Bluebird 8, fly today with the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy.
- The Lockheed EC-130E Republic 5 continued to serve with the USAF and was finally retired in June of 2013. The aircraft is now on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum.