On November 4, 1979 a mob in Iran stormed the US Embassy and took the staff and USMC security contigent hostage. In all, 52 Americans were captured and were being held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and it was unclear whether they were being tortured or readied for execution. Within hours, the newly certified US Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Airborne) was on full alert and plans were being drawn up for a rescue.
Delta’s commander, Colonel Charles Beckwith, was intimately involved with the rescue attempt. The Americans faced a daunting task. Tehran is well inside Iran and away from friendly countries. The hostages were not held at an airport as in Israel’s earlier Entebbe raid. Good intelligence was hard to come by about forces inside the embassy and in Tehran. And of course, all the planning and training had to be carried out in complete secrecy.
What was ultimately decided on was an audacious plan involving all four services, eight helicopters (USMC RH-53’s), 12 planes (four MC-130’s, three EC-130’s, three AC-130’s, and two C-141’s), and numerous operators infiltrated into Tehran ahead of the actuall assault. The basic plan was to infiltrate the operators into the country the night before the assault and get them to Tehran, and after the assault, bring them home.
The first night, three MC-130’s were to fly to an barren spot in Iran and offload the Delta force men, Combat Controllers, and translators/truck drivers. Three EC-130’s following the Combat Talon’s would then land and prepare to refuel the Marine RH-53’s flying in from the US Carrier Nimitz. Once the helicopters were refuled, they would fly the task force to a spot near the outskirts of Tehran and meet up with agents already in-country who would lead the operators to a safe house to await the assault the next night. The helicopters would fly to another site in-country and hide until called by the Delta operators.
On the second night, the MC-130’s and EC-130’s would again fly into the country, this time with 100 Rangers, and head for Manzariyeh Airfield. The Rangers were to assault the field and hold it so that the two C-141’s could land to ferry the hostages back home. The three AC-130’s would be used to provide cover for the rangers at Manzariyeh, support Delta’s assault, and to supress any attempts at action by the Iranian Air Force from nearby Mehrabad Airbase. Delta would assault the embassy and free the hostages, then rendevous with the helicopters in a nearby football stadium. They and the hostages would be flown to Manzariyeh Airfield and the waiting C-141’s and then flown out of the country. All the aircraft but the eight helicopters would be flown back, the helicopters would be destroyed before leaving.
What actually happened was far different from what was planned.
A month before the assault a CIA Twin Otter had flown into the first landing area, known as Desert One. A USAF Combat Controller had rode around the landing area on a light dirt bike and planted landing lights to help guide the force in. That insertion went well, with no contact, and the pilots reported that their sensors had picked up some radar signals at 3,000 feet but nothing below that.
Despite these findings, the helicopter pilots were told to fly at or below 200 feet to avoid radar. This limitation caused them to run into a haboob, or dust storm, that they could not fly over without breaking the 200 foot limit. Two helicopters lost sight of the task force and landed, out of action. Another had landed earlier when a warning light had come on. Their crew had been picked up but the aircraft that had stopped to retrieve them was now 20 minutes behind the rest of the formation.
Battling dust storms and heavy winds, the RH-53’s continued to make their way to Desert One. After recieving word that the EC-130’s and fuel had arrived, the two aircraft that had landed earlier started up again and resumed their flight to the rendevous. But then another helicopter had a malfunction and the pilot and Marine commander decided to turn back, halfway to the site. The task force was down to six helicopters, the bare minimum needed to pull off the rescue.
The first group of three helicopters arrived at Desert One an hour late, with the rest appearing 15 minutes later. The rescue attempt was dealt it’s final blow when it was learned that one of the aircraft had lost its primary hydralic system and was unsafe to use fully loaded for the assault. Only five aircraft were servicable and six needed, so the mission was aborted.
Things got worse, though, when one of the helicopters moved to another position and drifted into one of the parked EC-130’s (in the pilot’s defense, it was dark and his rotors kicked up an immense dust cloud, making it difficult to see). Immediately both the C-130 and RH-53 burst into flames, lighting up the dark desert night. The C-130 was evacuated and the order came to blow the aircraft and exfiltrate the country.
However, in the dust and confusion the order never reached the people who would blow the aircraft. There were wounded and dying men to be taken care of and the aircraft had to be moved to avoid having the burning debris start another fire. Because of this failure to destroy the helicopters, top secret plans fell into the hands of the Iranians the next day and the agents waiting in-country to help the Delta operators were almost captured.
|The Aftermath: broken aircraft at Desert One.|
All told, five Air Force personnel and three Marines lost thier lives and dozens more were injured. The Iranians scattered the hostages around the country afterwards, making any further rescue attempts impossible. They would be released later, after ??? days of imprisonment.
Lessons LearnedInsufficient information and bad planning played a key role in the failure of the rescue. The planners had calculated that it would take the eight RC-53’s four hours and twenty minutes to make the flight; it had taken five hours twenty minutes. The Air Weather Service had not been able to predict the low level dust storms that hampered the mission. If they had, some more low-level bad weather flight training might have made the flight easier and have prevented the fatal crash that killed eight people.
Also, the helicopter crews had been thrown together at the last minute after it was discovered that many of the Marine pilots lacked the skills necessary to complete the mission. It was a combination of Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots who flew the mission. In one case, unfamiliarity with the aircraft caused one pilot to ground the aircraft when it could have flown the mission.