John "Coach" Carney
The Father of USAF
receives Bull Simons
It all started with
colonel was an accomplished salesman. He had spent a
career selling the idea of his elite unit, and now that it existed, he
eager to show what miracles it could perform. His enthusiasm was
and his men had been rehearsing the mission for so long that they could
done it in their sleep, and they were going to make
history—not just cut this
particular Gordian knot but write their names in the annals of military
In a sense, Beckwith’s long crusade to create Delta Force had
been a rebellion
against the mechanization and bureaucratization of modern warfare. He
an old and visceral conviction: that war was the business of brave men.
loved soldiers and soldiering, and his vision was of a company of men
himself: impatient with rank, rules, and politics, focused entirely on
He had created such a force, choosing the best of the best and training
perfection. They were not just good, they were magnificent. And now he
lead them into battle.
were nearly ready. Two small teams had already been in
and out of Iran to scout the landing site at Desert One, and to find
sites and the vehicles that would carry the raiding party to the
RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters and their crews were waiting below
decks on the
aircraft carrier Nimitz, which cruised in the
Arabian Sea. Staging areas
at Wadi Kena, an abandoned Soviet airstrip in Egypt, and on Masirah, an
off the coast of Oman, were being readied to receive
Beckwith’s men and planes.
Dick Meadows, the leader of the team that had prepared the hide sites,
packing his bags for a return trip to Tehran, where he would wait to
the rest of the force on the first night of the mission. Moving
position would take about two weeks.
Carter had not yet given the go-ahead, but
when Beckwith left the White House, he was certain he had sold the
flew to Delta’s stockade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and
assembled his top men. “You can’t tell the people;
you can’t tell anybody,” he said.
“Don’t talk about this to anyone. But the president
has approved the mission,
and we’re going to go on April 24.”
24, 1980, Dusk
the failing light a lone plane moved fast and low over dark waters
coast of Iran. It was a big four-propeller U.S. Air Force workhorse, a
Hercules, painted in a mottled black-and-green camouflage that made it
invisible against the black water and the night sky. It flew with no
Inside, in the eerie red glow of the plane’s blackout lamps,
struggled to get comfortable in a cramped, unaccommodating space. Only
eleven men of the plane’s usual crew had assigned seats; the
others sprawled on
and around a Jeep, five motorcycles, two long sheets of heavy aluminum
wedge under the plane’s tires if it became stuck in desert
sand), and a bulky
portable guidance system that would help the other planes and
their way to Desert One. Their rendezvous was a flat, empty spot in the
Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert, fifty-eight miles from Tabas, the nearest
Carney on the bike, Mitch Bryant, John (J.K.)Koren, Mike Lampe, Bud
Dick (Monkey) West, Bill Sink, Rex Wollmann, and Doug Cohee
taken off at dusk from the tiny island of Masirah.
An hour behind them would come five more C-130s—one of them
carrying most of
the remainder of Beckwith’s assault force, which now numbered
132 men; three
serving as “bladder planes,” each one’s
hold occupied by two gigantic rubber balloons
filled with fuel; and a back-up fuel plane carrying the last Deltas and
of sophisticated telecommunications-monitoring equipment.
earlier the entire force had flown from Florida to
Egypt on big Army jet transports. His mission under way, Beckwith had
wound tight, at once anxious and arrogant. To the pilot’s
question “Where are
we going?” he’d answered, “Just shut up
and fly, and I’ll tell you when to
stop.” They spent a few days at Wadi Kena, which had been
amply outfitted for their
arrival, with two refrigerators and pallets full of beer and soda. When
refrigerators were finally emptied of beer, they were stocked with
morning of the mission, the men had assembled in a
warehouse, where Major Jerry Boykin had offered a prayer. Tall and
lean, with a
long, dark beard, Boykin stood at a podium before a plug box where
wires intersected and formed a big cross on the wall. Behind him was a
poster-sized sheet displaying photographs of the Americans held
chose a passage from the first Book of Samuel:
And David put his hand in his bag,
and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in the
forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell on his
face to the
earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a
flown from Wadi Kena to Masirah, where they had
hunkered in tents through a bright and broiling afternoon, fighting off
stinging flies and waiting impatiently for dusk. They would make a
flight over the Gulf of Oman and across Iran to Desert One. The route
calculated to exploit gaps in Iran’s coastal defenses, and to
over military bases and populated areas. Major Wayne Long,
officer, was at a console in the telecommunications plane with a
Security Agency linguist, who was monitoring Iranian telecommunications
sign that the aircraft had been discovered and the mission compromised.
after the lead plane departed Masirah, eight Sea
Stallions left the Nimitz and moved out over the
gulf in order to make
landfall shortly after sunset. The choppers took their own route,
Iran between the towns of Jask and Konarak, and flying even closer to
ground than the planes. Word of the successful helicopter
launch—“Eight off the
deck”—reached those in the lead plane as especially
welcome news, because they
had expected only seven. Earlier reports had indicated that the eighth
having mechanical problems. Eight widened the margin of error.
expected breakdowns. In their many rehearsals, they
had determined that six choppers were essential for carrying all the
equipment from Desert One to the hide sites. The load was finely
every assaulter had an assigned limit and was weighed to make sure he
Not all six choppers would be needed to haul the hostages and
the stadium the next night (two would do in a pinch), but some of the
that made it to the hideouts were expected to fail the next morning. If
were enough, eight provided comfort.
final decision to launch had come earlier that day,
after Dick Meadows, Delta’s advance man, broadcast a signal
from Tehran that
all was ready. He had returned to the city disguised as an Irish
and had met up with “Fred,” his Iranian-American
guide and interpreter, and
with two U.S. soldiers who had themselves entered Iran as Irish and
businessmen. They had spent that day reconnoitering all of the various
sites, the embassy, the foreign ministry, and the soccer stadium.
lead plane pushed on into Iran, Major Bucky Burruss,
Beckwith’s deputy, was on the second C-130, sprawled on a
mattress near the
front of the plane. Burruss was still somewhat startled to find himself
actual mission, although there was still no telling if they were really
to go through with it. One thing President Carter had insisted on was
option of calling off the raid right up to the last minute: right
were to storm the embassy walls. To make sure they could get real-time
instructions from Washington, a satellite radio and relay system had
in place at Wadi Kena.
presidential directive concerned the use of
nonlethal riot-control agents. Given that the shah’s
occasionally violent riot
control during the revolution was now Exhibit A in Iran’s
against the former regime and America, Carter wnted to avoid killing
so he had insisted that if a hostile crowd formed during the raid,
attempt to control it without shooting people.
Bucky Burrus and Jill, again…. How does she do that?
was made up of men who would have felt crushed to be
excluded from this mission. They were ambitious for glory. They had
to serve with Beckwith and had undergone the trials of a grueling
process precisely to serve in improbable exploits like this. Some of
had read about wildly heroic feats in history and longed to have taken
here was such a moment. If they pulled it off, it would go down as one
boldest maneuvers in military history. They would snatch the innocent
from the jaws of the Islamist dragon. Their nation would cheer them in
that people wouldn’t know exactly whom they were
toasting made it all the more appealing. The heroism would be pure.
individuals would not be celebrated—only their achievement.
None of these men
would be in ticker-tape parades, or sitting down for interviews on
or having their pictures on the covers of magazines, or cashing in on
contracts. They were quiet professionals. In a world of brag and hype,
embodied substance. They would come home and, after a few days off, go
back to work. Of course, within their own world they would not just be
respected; they would be legends. For the rest of their lives, knowing
would murmur, “He was on Eagle Claw.”
were a motley, deliberately unmilitary-looking bunch of young men. In
fact, they looked a lot like the students who had seized the embassy.
Most were just a few years older than the hostage-takers. They had long
hair and had grown moustaches and beards, or at least gone unshaven.
Many of those with fair hair had dyed it dark brown or black, figuring
that might nudge the odds at least slightly in their favor if they were
forced to fight their way out of Iran. The loose-fitting, many-pocketed
field jackets they wore, also dyed black, were just like the ones
favored by young men in Iran. Under the Geneva Conventions, soldiers
(as opposed to spies) must enter combat in uniform, so for the occasion
the men all wore matching black knit caps and on their jacket sleeves
had American flags that could be covered by small black Velcro patches.
On the streets of Tehran the flags would invite trouble, but inside the
embassy compound they would reassure the hostages that they
weren’t just being kidnapped by some rival Iranian faction.
men wore faded blue jeans and combat boots, and beneath their jackets
some wore armored vests. Much of their gear was improvised. They had
sewn additional pockets inside the jackets to carry weapons, ammo, and
water. Most of the men carried sidearms, grenades, small MP-5
submachine guns with silencers, and various explosive devices.
insisted on a Ranger tradition: each man carried clips and a length of
rope wrapped around his waist, in case the need arose to rappel. With
his white stubble, dangling cigarette or cigar, and wild eyes under
thick dark eyebrows, Beckwith himself looked like a dangerous vagrant.
Before leaving Masirah, the men had joked about which actors would
portray them in the movie version of the raid, and they decided that
the hillbilly actor Slim Pickens, who in Stanley Kubrick’s
Strangelove had ridden a nuclear weapon down into doomsday waving his
cowboy hat and hallooing, would be the perfect choice for the colonel.
the lead plane
closed in on the landing site, its pilots noted curious milky patches
in the night sky. They flew through one that appeared to be just haze,
not even substantial enough to interfere with the downward-looking
radar. They approached a second one as they got closer to the landing
site. John Carney, who had come into the cockpit to be ready to
activate the landing lights he had buried on his trip weeks earlier,
was asked, “What do you make of that stuff out
looked through the co-pilot’s window and answered,
“You’re in a haboob.”
men in the cockpit laughed at the word.
we’re flying through suspended dust,” Carney
explained. “The Iranians call it a haboob.”
He had learned this from the CIA pilots who had flown him in earlier.
Shifting air pressure sometimes forced especially fine desert sand
straight up thousands of feet, where it hung like a vertical cloud for
hours. It was just a desert curiosity, nothing that could cause a
problem for the planes. But Air Force Colonel James H. Kyle, whose
responsibility included all airborne aspects of the mission, knew that
the haboob would be trouble for a helicopter. He had noticed that the
temperature inside the plane went up significantly when they passed
through the first haboob. He conferred with the plane’s crew,
suggested they break radio silence and call “Red
command center at Wadi Kena, to warn the helicopter formation behind
them. The chopper pilots might want to break formation or fly higher to
avoid the stuff. It took the lead plane about thirty minutes to fly
through this second patch, indicating that it extended about a hundred
the C-130 approached
the landing area, Carney activated his runway lights, but just then the
plane’s newfangled FLIR (forward-looking infrared radar)
something moving, which proved to be a truck hurtling along the dirt
road that ran through the landing site. The pilots passed over the spot
and then circled back around. On the second pass the stretch of desert
was clear. They circled around for the third time and touched
down—Logan Fitch, a tall Texan and one of Delta’s
leaders, was amazed by how smoothly. The plane coasted to a stop, and
when the back ramp was lowered, the Rangers roared off in the Jeep and
on a motorcycle to give chase to the truck. Word that an American plane
had landed in the desert, relayed promptly to the right people, could
defeat the whole effort.
of three weeks prior was now coated with a layer of sand the
consistency of baby powder—ankle-deep in some
accounted for the extraordinary softness of their landing. This fine
sand made it more difficult to taxi the plane, and the backwash from
the propellers kicked up a serious dust storm.
followed with his
men, walking down the ramp and stepping into a cauldron of noise and
dust. His team had nothing to do at Desert One except wait to offload
camouflage netting and other equipment from the second C-130 when it
arrived, then board helicopters for the short trip to the hiding
places. The big plane’s propellers were still roaring and
up sand. Shielding his eyes with an upraised arm, Fitch turned to his
right and was shocked to see, coming straight toward him, a bus!
Literally out of nowhere. The odds that the plane would encounter one
vehicle at midnight on such an isolated desert road were vanishingly
small, but there it was, honoring an absolute law of military
operations: the inevitability of the unexpected. This second vehicle
was a big Mercedes passenger bus, piled high with luggage, lit up like
midday inside, and filled with more than forty astonished Iranian
desert flashed as bright as daylight and shook with an explosion. In
the near distance, a giant ball of flame rose high into the darkness.
One of the Rangers had fired an anti-tank weapon at the fleeing truck,
which turned out to have been loaded with fuel. It burned like a
miniature sun. So much for slipping quietly into Iran. This clandestine
rendezvous spot, this patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, was lit
up like a Friday-night football game in Texas. The men with
night-vision goggles removed them. At least one of the
occupants had bailed out, climbed into a trailing pickup truck (three
vehicles!), and escaped at high speed. A Ranger gave chase on the
motorcycle but couldn’t catch up.
this sudden glow the
bus now rolled to a stop with a leaking radiator and a flat right-front
tire. Rangers had fired their weapons to disable it. Fitch, still
confused, sent Delta machine-gun teams to both sides of the stalled,
steaming vehicle, and led a group of his men to the front. Some Rangers
were already aboard.
mounted the steps and asked a Ranger sergeant, “What the hell
is going on?”
to get these people off the bus, but they won’t
sergeant said. The passengers were clearly bewildered.
fire a shot over their heads?” he asked.
“No,” Fitch said. “Why don’t
you just get off
the bus, and I’ll get my people in here.”
specialties was handling hostages—herding them, searching
securing them. In the next few minutes, Fitch’s men firmly
efficiently emptied the bus and searched the passengers for weapons.
They then stripped the baggage off the top of the bus and searched it,
finding no weapons. The passengers appeared to be poor Iranians, simply
traveling through the night from Yazd to Tabas. The bus was decorated
with placards and posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. It had rolled into
the wrong place at the wrong time.
question of what to
do with the passengers was relayed all the way to the White House. The
president and his staff were deliberately going through the
late-afternoon motions of a typical workday but secretly hanging on
every update from the desert.
the national-security adviser, relayed the unexpected problem of the
bus to the president, and Carter agreed that the only thing to do was
to fly all the Iranians out that night on one of the C-130s and then
return them to Iran when the mission was complete.
things grew louder and busier as the second C-130 roared in for a
landing, right on schedule, and taxied to a stop. Behind it were the
three fuel tankers and the communications plane. As Burruss and his men
came down the lowered ramp of their plane, they gaped at the ball of
flame, the bus, and the passengers sitting on the sand.
to World War Three!” Fitch greeted them.
One was now
looking more like an airport, and Carney’s men were busy
directing traffic, preparing for the arrival of the helicopters. Within
the hour, all three C-130 bladder planes were positioned and parked,
along with the communications plane. The first two C-130s would return
to Masirah before the arrival of the helicopters, clearing space at the
unloading had gone
pretty much as planned, with one exception: the second C-130 had landed
a few thousand feet farther away from the landing zone than expected,
so the job of transferring the camouflage netting from it to the
choppers was correspondingly bigger. The netting would be draped over
the helicopters at their hiding places at daylight. It was not an
especially warm night in the desert, but all the men were overdressed
in layers of clothing, and they were sweating heavily with exertion.
Moving through the loose sand made the task even more difficult. The
Air Force crews struggled to unfurl hundreds of pounds of hoses from
the parked tankers, for fueling the choppers. The bus would have to be
moved, so all the passengers were herded back on.
“What is the status of the choppers?” Beckwith
asked over a secure satellite radio.
command station at Wadi Kena responded by relaying a request from the
lead chopper for conditions at Desert One.
five miles with negative surface winds,” reported Colonel
Kyle, who was with Beckwith.
they heard from
the lead chopper, which had a secure satellite radio similar to
Beckwith’s at Desert One: “Fifty minutes out and
fuel crews were
poised. They were capable of working like pit crews at the Indy 500. It
would take only ten minutes to refill a landed chopper and send it on
its way, but everything was behind schedule, which meant that even if
the refueling and loading were done perfectly, the choppers would not
get to their hiding places before dawn. That posed only a small risk,
as the sites were in mountains outside the city, the choppers had been
painted the same colors as the Iranian army’s helicopters,
would still be fairly dark when they arrived. Still, if they
didn’t land at Desert One soon, they would be getting to
hiding places in broad daylight.
was nothing to do
but wait. Most of the force had been on the ground for more than two
hours. Stirred by the idling aircraft, sand whipped around the men,
stinging their faces and making it difficult to see. The choppers were
late and getting later. But they had been late in every one of the
rehearsals, so no one was surprised.
the Sea Stallions were down to six.
of eight had crossed into Iran flying at 200 feet and then moved down
to 100 feet. Two of the choppers were having difficulty with their
navigation equipment, but flying that close to the ground they could
steer by using landmarks and by staying with the formation. They were
not allowed to communicate over their non-secure radios, lest they be
overheard by Iranian defenses, but they had practiced flashing lights
as signals. They flew in a staggered line of four pairs. Not far inside
Iran, the helicopter crews spotted part of the trailing formation of
C-130s, which confirmed that the Sea Stallions were going the right
way. Lieutenant Colonel Ed Seiffert, the flight leader and pilot of the
first chopper, felt relaxed enough to take a break and have something
But the formation got only 140 miles into Iran before one of the
choppers had trouble. In the cockpit of the sixth one in formation a
warning light indicated that one of its blades had been hit by
something or had cracked—a potentially fatal problem. That
chopper immediately landed, followed by the one just behind it, and
after determining that a rotor blade was in fact badly cracked, the
pilots abandoned the damaged aircraft, removing all the classified
documents inside, and climbed into chopper No. 8. It lifted off, gave
chase, and eventually caught up with the others.
they burned off
fuel, the choppers picked up speed. They were closing in on Desert One.
About 200 miles into Iran they saw before them what looked like a wall
of whiteness: the first haboob. They flew right into it. Seiffert
realized that it was suspended dust only when he tasted it and felt it
in his teeth. If it was penetrating his cockpit, it was penetrating his
engines. The temperature inside rose to 100 degrees. But then they were
out of the cloud as suddenly as they had entered it. They had flown
right through it.
ahead was the
second, much larger haboob, but Seiffert didn’t know that. No
warning from the lead C-130 had been relayed; the need to maintain
radio silence, and to communicate in code if it was broken, had
ultimately led Kyle to decide against making a report.
formation passed into the second cloud assuming that it was no bigger
than the first. But the haboob grew thicker and thicker, until Seiffert
could no longer see the other choppers or the ground. The helicopters
had turned on their outside safety lights, and off in the haze
indistinct halos of red were strung out at varying distances. When the
fuzzy beacons also vanished, Seiffert and his wingman made a U-turn,
flew back out of the cloud, and landed. None of the other five choppers
had seen them land. Seiffert had hoped they would all follow him to the
ground, where they could confer and decide on a strategy. Now he and
his wingman had no choice but to take off and fly back into the soup,
trying to catch up.
Jim Schaefer was
now flying lead. One moment Seiffert’s aircraft had been in
of him, and the next it was gone. One by one the indistinct red blobs
in the milky haze had grown dimmer and dimmer, and then they, too, were
gone. How could I lose them? Schaefer thought. He could see nothing,
and he heard nothing but the sounds of his own engines. All around him
was a smothering cloak of whiteness. He executed a “lost
plane” maneuver, turning fifteen degrees off course for a few
minutes, and then turning back on course, hoping to pick up the
formation again. Even from as low as 200 feet, he could not see the
He climbed to 1,000 feet and was still in the cloud. Inside the chopper
it was hot and getting hotter. He descended, this time below 200 feet.
Schaefer could see the ground only intermittently. For three hours they
flew like this, on nerves and instruments. The cockpit was overheated,
and the men in it were increasingly tense.
there anything in front of us?” Schaefer asked his co-pilot,
there’s a six-thousand-foot mountain in front of
us,” Petty replied.
soon?” Schaefer asked.
trust the machine,” Petty said, “and I
don’t trust my
map. I ain’t seen the ground in three hours. I’d
they started to
climb. They climbed to 6,000 feet, and abruptly the dust cloud broke.
Inside the chopper it was suddenly very cold. Off to one side Schaefer
saw the peak of a mountain.
job, Les,” he said. “I love
One was still
about an hour away, so they plunged back into the haboob. This time
Schaefer leveled off at 600 feet. He didn’t know it, but the
remaining six choppers were doing the same. The lack of visibility had
made all the crews woozy. It was especially hard on the pilots, whose
night-vision goggles distorted depth perception and intensified
feelings of vertigo. The men were becoming thirsty in the extreme heat.
They knew that more tall peaks lay between them and Desert One, and
they could only hope that visibility improved in time for them to steer
around or over them.
was a struggle for
all of them, and finally one pilot gave up. Lieutenant Commander Rodney
Davis had watched the control lights in his cockpit indicate a number
of equipment failures. His compass was not working, and his other
navigation devices were being affected by the heat. His co-pilot was
feeling sick. When he lost sight of the nearest chopper, Davis was
alone in the haboob. He tried spiraling downward, a maneuver for
relocating his wingman, but he couldn’t see the other chopper
couldn’t get a clear fix on anything below that would give
his exact position. Davis took his aircraft up to 9,000 feet and was
still in the cloud. He was at a critical point in the flight. To press
on meant he’d have no chance of making it back to the
for lack of fuel. Because he couldn’t see ahead or down, he
steer off course or collide with a mountain on the way to Desert One.
He conferred with Colonel Chuck Pitman, the ranking officer of the
entire formation, who was riding in back. They assumed that with the
other seven choppers still en route (they did not know that one had
already been lost), they would not fatally compromise the mission by
they turned around.
the landing strip,
Delta Force waited anxiously as precious minutes of darkness continued
to slip away. It was an enormous relief when the men heard the
distinctive whoop-whoop-whoop of the first two helicopters.
in the lead
chopper, saw a giant pillar of flame, and his first thought was that
one of the C-130s had crashed and exploded. He flew over Desert One and
counted four planes on the ground, exactly what he expected to find.
Thank you, Lord, he said to himself.
turned to land on a
second pass, and as he came down he clipped a rut so hard that he knew
he had damaged his aircraft. The tires on his landing gear were blown
and knocked off the rims. He had been in the air for five hours. He was
tired and relieved and had to piss. Like the planes, the choppers kept
their engines running to lower the risk of a mechanical failure; most
problems showed up after stopping and restarting. Schaefer and most of
his crew got out and walked around behind their chopper to urinate, and
there Schaefer was confronted by the eager Beckwith, trailed by
Burruss, Kyle, and the other commanders.
the hell’s going on?” the colonel asked.
“How did you get so goddamn late?”
we’re only twenty-five minutes late,” Schaefer
“Second of all, I don’t know where anyone else is,
we went into a big dust cloud.”
goddamn dust cloud out here,” Beckwith said, gesturing at the
open sky. He had not been told about the haboobs on the way
one,” Schaefer said. He told Beckwith that the conditions
in had been the worst he had ever flown through. His men were badly
shaken. His chopper still flew but had been damaged. He
sure they could go on.
was not what Beckwith wanted to hear.
to report this thing,” he said angrily. He thought the pilot
looked shattered, as if the pressure had completely broken him down. He
slapped Schaefer on the back and told him that he and the others were
going to have to suck it up.
arrived, and one of them was having a problem. Captain B. J.
McGuire’s helicopter had been flying with a warning light on
the cockpit that indicated trouble with one of the hydraulic systems.
Fitch was the first person to reach McGuire on landing.
so happy you are here!” Fitch said, shouting to be heard.
“Where are the rest of the guys?”
“I don’t know,” McGuire said.
“We don’t have any
about the problem with his helicopter. He said he thought the working
hydraulic system was sufficiently trustworthy for him to
When the last two choppers finally landed, it was cause for quiet
celebration. It was now 1:30 in the morning, which gave the men just
enough time to get everything done and hidden before full daylight.
They had the required six helicopters. Some members of the assault
force exchanged high fives. Seiffert soon had his pilots maneuvering
their empty choppers into position behind the four tankers to refuel.
Their wheels made deep tracks in the fine sand, and the turning rotors
whipped up violent dust storms. The rotors and propellers were
deafening, and all around the aircraft were fierce little sand squalls.
The truck fire was still burning brightly.
get his men aboard the choppers and be off, climbed into the last one
to land and tried to get the attention of Seiffert, who was
coordinating these maneuvers from his cockpit.
permission to load, Skipper,” Beckwith said. “We
need to get with it.”
didn’t hear him or ignored him. “Hey, remember
Beckwith asked. He then slapped the pilot’s helmet. Seiffert
off his helmet and confronted Beckwith angrily.
can’t guarantee we’ll get you to the next site
before first light.”
don’t care,” Beckwith said.
told him to go ahead and load his men.
from chopper to chopper, urging things forward, when another of the
helicopter pilots stepped out and said, “The skipper told me
tell you we only have five flyable helicopters. That’s what
skipper told me to tell you.”
colonel could see that the rotor on one of the Sea Stallions had
stopped turning. Someone had shut it down.
was precisely what
he had feared: these pilots were determined to scuttle his mission. It
had not been lost on the other commanders, most of whom outranked
Beckwith, that the pugnacious colonel regarded them all as inferiors,
as supporting players. The pilots, the navigators, the air crews, the
fuel-equipment operators, the Rangers, the Combat Controllers, the
spies in Tehran, even the generals back at Wadi Kena—they
all ordinary mortals, squires, spear carriers, water boys. Their job
was to serve Delta, to get the colonel and his magnificent men into
place for their rendezvous with destiny. All along, Beckwith had been
impatient with and suspicious of the other services and units involved;
in his eyes, they all lacked experience, nerve, and skill. So now, when
things began to go sour, Beckwith felt not just disappointment and
anger but contempt.
he found Kyle, he
bellowed, “That goddamn number-two helo has been shut down!
only have five good choppers. You’ve got to talk to Seiffert
see what he says. You talk their language—I
Beckwith didn’t see mechanical problems with the helicopters;
saw faltering courage in the men who flew them. He said as much to
Kyle, grumbling that the pilots were looking for excuses not to go.
The comment burned the Air Force officer, who had been contending with
Beckwith for months. He knew better than to argue with him. The chopper
captains had the same kind of responsibilities that Beckwith had, and
they were responsible for getting their own crews in and out safely. No
one knew their machines better than they did, because they literally
bet their lives on them every time they flew.
had made his
decision. One of the hydraulic pumps on McGuire’s chopper was
shot, and they had no way to fix it. Kyle asked if it would be possible
to fly using just the remaining pump, and Seiffert told him
emphatically, “No! It’s unsafe! If the controls
lock up, it
becomes uncontrollable. It’s grounded!”
When Fitch returned from rounding up the rest of his men, he was
surprised to find that his second-in-command, Captain E. K. Smith, was
still waiting with his squadron in the dust. He told Smith to get the
men on the choppers.
mission is an abort,” Smith said.
do you mean, it’s an abort?”
said it’s an abort,” Smith said. He explained that
McGuire’s chopper couldn’t fly. This contradicted
Fitch had heard from McGuire—that the chopper was damaged but
flyable. Fitch knew his commander was such a hothead that it was
entirely possible Beckwith had said something like that knowing only
half the story.
I’m not doubting your word, but I’m going to see
Beckwith about this,” he said.
The abort scenario, which they had rehearsed, called for Fitch and his
men to board not the helicopters but one of the tankers. The choppers
would fly back to the carrier, and the planes would return to Masirah.
Fitch told Smith to prepare the men to board the plane, but said they
should wait until he returned.
Finding Colonel Beckwith in the noise and swirling dust
easy; one of the things the plan lacked was a clearly defined rallying
point, or command center. So it took some wandering, but Fitch
eventually found Beckwith, Burruss, Kyle, and the other mission
commanders huddled outside one of the C-130s with a secure satellite
going on?” he shouted over the din.
said that helicopter can’t fly—that it’s
capable—and we’re down to five,” Beckwith
and the chopper
crews said they were ready to proceed with five helicopters, but that
would require trimming the assault force by twenty men. Beckwith
refused. “We all go or nobody goes,” he said. The
was passed up the chain to Washington, where Secretary of Defense
Harold Brown relayed the situation to Brzezinski in the White House.
The national-security adviser, who only minutes earlier had been told
that all six choppers were refueling and that the mission was
proceeding as planned, was stunned. He quickly assessed what he knew,
and engaged in a little wishful thinking. He imagined Beckwith, who had
been so gung-ho in his visit to the White House, fuming in the desert,
eager to proceed but stymied by more-cautious generals in the rear. So
he directed Brown to tell the commanders on the ground that if they
were prepared to go ahead with only five choppers, they had White House
approval. He then left to find Carter.
the din of Desert
One the mission commanders received Brzezinski’s message and
reconsidered. It angered Beckwith to even be asked; he felt his
judgment and commitment were being questioned. Nevertheless, he said,
“Can we make it with fewer aircraft?”
we have been through this in rehearsals,” Fitch said.
“Who are we going to leave behind?”
felt that they
could trim the package and proceed. Shortly before lifting off on the
mission, they had received new and reliable intelligence about the
location of the hostages in the embassy compound, which would eliminate
the need for some of the searching they had planned to do. Perhaps they
could do it with fewer men.
Beckwith was more
cautious. Which men would they leave behind? If they left the
interpreters, who would talk them past the roadblocks in the city? If
they got five choppers to the hide sites, how likely was it that all
five would restart the next day? If one or two failed to start, and
another got hit—likely scenarios that had been built into the
plan—how were they going to airlift out all the hostages and
Beckwith’s men? The plan was finely wrought, with such a
balance between risk and opportunity that asking Beckwith to omit any
piece was too much. It meant shifting the odds too greatly against his
men and his beautiful creation, which he was not prepared to do. That
was the conclusion the mission planners had reached in advance, after
calm, careful deliberation. These automatic-abort scenarios had been
predetermined precisely to avoid life-and-death decisions at the last
minute. This was clearly an abort situation. On the mission schedule,
just after the line “less than six helos,” was the
“ABORT,” and it was the only word on the page in
need every man
I’ve got and every piece of gear,” Beckwith said
“There’s no fat I can cut out.”
relayed to Wadi Kena and to Washington, where Brzezinski broke the news
of the setback to Carter. Standing in a corridor between the Oval
Office and the president’s study, Carter muttered,
and Brzezinski were
soon joined by a larger group of advisers, including Walter Mondale,
Hamilton Jordan, Warren Christopher, and Jody Powell. Standing behind
his desk, his sleeves rolled up and hands on his hips, the president
told them, “I’ve got some bad news … I
had to abort
the rescue mission … Two of our helicopters never reached
One. That left us six. The Delta team was boarding the six helicopters
when they found out that one of them had a mechanical problem and
couldn’t go on.”
did Beckwith think?” Jordan asked.
explained that they had consulted with Beckwith, and that the decision
had been unanimous.
“At least there were no American casualties and no innocent
Iranians hurt,” Carter said.
Desert One there
wasn’t time to dwell on the abort decision. Fitch directed
men to board one of the fuel planes. They piled in on top of the nearly
emptied fuel bladders, which rippled like a giant black water bed.
Everyone was weary and disappointed. Delta officer Eric Haney stripped
off his gear and his black field jacket, balling it up behind him to
form a cushion against the hard metal angles of the plane’s
wall. He and some of the other men wedged their weapons snugly between
the bladder and the wall of the plane to keep them secure and out of
the way. Some of the men immediately fell asleep.
“We’re all set—let’s
go,” Fitch told the plane’s crew chief.
tanker, a Combat Controller in goggles, one of Carney’s crew,
appeared outside the cockpit of Major Schaefer’s chopper and
informed the pilot that he had to move his aircraft out of the way.
Schaefer had refueled behind that tanker, and he now had enough fuel to
fly back to the Nimitz, but first the C-130s needed to get off the
Schaefer lifted the
front end of his craft. His crew chief hopped out to straighten the
nose wheels, which had been bent sideways when they landed.
could be retracted so that they wouldn’t cause drag in
The crew chief climbed back in, and Schaefer lifted the chopper to a
hover at about fifteen feet and held it, kicking up an intense storm of
dust that whipped around the Combat Controller on the ground. The
Combat Controller was the only thing Schaefer could see below, a hazy
black image in a cloud of brown, so the pilot fixed on him as a point
escape the cloud created by Schaefer’s rotors, the Combat
Controller retreated toward the wing of the parked C-130. Concentrating
on his own aircraft, Schaefer didn’t notice that his blurry
reference point on the ground had moved. He kept the nose of his
blinded chopper pointed at the man below, and as the Combat Controller
moved, the helicopter turned in the same direction, drifting to a point
almost directly above the plane.
much power do we have, Les?” Schaefer asked, performing his
percent,” Petty said.
Schaefer heard and
felt a loud, strong, metallic whack! It sounded like someone had hit
the side of his aircraft with a large aluminum bat. Others heard a
cracking sound as loud as an explosion, but somehow sharper-edged, more
piercing and particular, like the shearing impact of giant industrial
tools. The Marine pilot’s rotors had clipped the top of the
plane, metal violently smashing into metal in a wild spray of sparks,
and instantly the helicopter lost all aerodynamics, was wrenched
forward by the collision, its cushion of air whipped out from beneath,
and it fell with a grinding bang into the C-130’s cockpit, an
impact so stunning that Schaefer briefly blacked out. Both aircraft
were carrying a lot of fuel—Shaefer had just filled his
and the C-130 still had fuel in the bladder in its rear. And the sparks
from the collision immediately ignited both of them with a powerful,
lung-emptying thump that seemed to suck all the air out of the desert.
A huge blue ball of fire formed around the front of the C-130, and a
pillar of white flame rocketed 300 feet or more into the sky, turning
the scene once more from night into day.
moment he felt and heard the crash, and started running toward it. He
pulled up short, a football field away, stopped by the intense heat,
and thought with despair of his men: Fitch’s entire troop,
the C-130, Fitch
had felt the plane begin to shudder, as though the pilots were revving
the engines for takeoff. The hold had no windows, and he
tell if they were moving yet. Then he heard two loud, dull thunks. He
thought maybe the nose gear or the landing gear had hit a rock, but
when he looked toward the front of the aircraft he saw flames and
sparks. He thought they were under attack.
had removed his
rucksack, and leaning against it was his weapon, an M203 grenade
launcher. He grabbed it and stood, in a single motion. Beside him the
plane’s load master, responding wordlessly to the same sight,
pulled open the troop door on the port side of the plane. It revealed a
solid wall of flame. Fitch helped the load master slam the door down
and push the handle in to lock it. He and the men were perched on a
thousand gallons of fuel, and they appeared to be caught in an
ramp!” Fitch shouted, but lowering it revealed more flames.
plane was going to explode. It was an enormous bomb on a short fuse,
and the fuse was lit. The only other way out was the starboard troop
door, which had been calmly opened by three of the plane’s
crewmen. That way proved blessedly free of flames. Men started piling
out of it before it was completely open.
Major Dave Cheney, a bull of a man with a big deep voice, kept
shouting, “Don’t panic! Don’t
panic!” as the
men crowded toward the only escape. Flames were spreading fast along
the roof, wrapping down the walls on both sides, and igniting in each
man a primitive flight instinct that none of them could control. One of
the junior Air Force crewmen fell and was being trampled by fleeing
Deltas when Technical Sergeant Ken Bancroft fought his way to the man,
picked him up, and carried him to the doorway and out.
natural authority and clarity helped prevent an utterly mad scramble,
and kept the men in a steady flow out the door. They were used to
filing out this way on parachute jumps, so the line moved fast. Still,
it was torture for the men at the rear.
Ray Doyle, a load master on one of the other tankers, more than a
hundred feet away, was knocked over by the force of the initial
explosion. Jessie Rowe, a crewman on another tanker, felt his plane
shake and the temperature of the air suddenly shoot up. Burruss saw the
plane erupt as he stepped off the back of his C-130. He was carrying
incendiary explosives down the ramp, to destroy the disabled Sea
Stallion, and the sight buckled him. He sat down and watched the tower
of flame engulfing the plane, the downed chopper perched on top of it
like a giant metal dragonfly, thinking, Man, Fitch and his whole
squadron gone, those poor bastards. But then he saw men running from
Pilots of the other craft quickly spread the word to their crews that
they had not been attacked.
was still inside
the burning plane, near the end of the line of men trying to get out.
He and those around him had been jarred alert by the noise and impact
of the crash, and Haney had seen blue sparks overhead toward the front.
Then the galley door at the front of the plane blew in, and flames
blasted in behind it. “Haul ass!” shouted the man
him, leaping to his feet.
E. K. Smith,
who had dozed off right after boarding the plane, woke up to see men
trying to gain their footing on the shifting surface of the fuel
bladder and thought it was amusing—until he saw the flames.
and the men around him scrambled toward the door as best they could,
fearing they would never outrace the flames. Ahead, men were jammed in
the doorway. When Haney finally reached the door, he threw himself out,
dropping down hard on the man who had jumped before him. They picked
themselves up and ran until they were about fifty yards away. Then they
turned to watch with horror.
felt it was his
duty to stay in the plane until all the men were off, but it was hard.
As the flames rapidly advanced, he realized that not everyone was going
to make it. Instinct finally won out, and both he and Cheney leaped out
the door, falling when they hit the ground. Other men crashed on top of
them. They helped one another up and over to where the others were now
watching, brightly illuminated by the growing fire.
Fitch ran to what
seemed a safe distance and then turned around, still assuming they were
under attack, and lifted his weapon. He looked for the enemy and saw
instead the awesome and ugly sight: the chopper, its rotors still
turning, had clearly crashed down on the front of the plane. It
wasn’t an attack; it was an accident.
saw two more men
jump out—one of them Staff Sergeant Joe Beyers, the
radio operator, whose flight suit was burning. Other men rushed to put
out the flames and drag him clear. Then ammunition started
“cooking off,” all the grenades, missiles,
rifle rounds on both aircraft, causing loud, cracking explosions and
throwing flames and light. The Redeye missiles went off, drawing smoke
trails high into the sky. Finally the fuel bladders ignited, sending a
huge pillar of flame skyward in a loud explosion that buckled the
fuselage. All four propellers dropped straight down into the sand and
stuck there, as if somebody had planted them.
In the chopper, Schaefer at last came to. He was sitting crooked in his
seat, the chopper was listing to one side, and flames engulfed the
wrong, Les, what’s wrong?” he asked, turning to his
co-pilot. But Petty was already gone. He had jumped out the window on
shut down the
engines and sat for a moment, certain he was about to die. Then, for
some reason, an image came into his mind of his
father—who had never seemed much impressed by his future
son-in-law—commenting a few days hence on how the poor sap
been found roasted like a holiday turkey in the front seat of his
aircraft. Something about that horrifying image motivated him. His body
would not be found like a blackened Butterball; he had to at least try
to escape. He ejected the window on his side, and as fire closed over
him, badly burning his face, he dropped hard to the ground and then ran
from the erupting wreckage.
and ammo sent flaming bits of hot metal and debris spraying across the
makeshift airport, riddling the four remaining working helicopters,
whose crews jumped out and moved to a safe distance. Most of the men
had no idea what was going on; they knew only that a plane and a
chopper had been destroyed. The air over the scene was heavy with the
odor of fuel, so it wasn’t hard to imagine that all the other
aircraft might burst into flames as well. The remaining C-130s began
taxiing in different directions away from the conflagration.
of the calamity
reached the command center in Wadi Kena in a hurried report:
have a crash. A helo crashed into one of the C-130s. We have some dead,
some wounded, and some trapped. The crash site is ablaze; ammunition is
only course now was
to clear out, and fast. Some thought was given to retrieving the bodies
of the dead, but the fire was raging, and there wasn’t time.
Reached by radio at Wadi Kena, Major General James Vaught, the
mission’s overall commander, instructed Burruss to turn loose
Iranian bus passengers. The Delta officer ordered one of his men to
disable the bus by ripping some wires from its engine.
Burruss headed back
to his C-130, he took one last look at the flaming ruins of the plane
and the chopper and felt a stab of remorse over leaving the dead
behind. But nothing could be done about it
of the catastrophe
reached the White House just before the force left the ground in
retreat. The president was in his study, surrounded by his advisers,
still absorbing the shock of the abort decision. He received a call
from General Jones.
watched the president close his eyes, and then Carter’s jaw
fell and his face went pale.
there any dead?” Carter asked.
room was silent. Finally the president said softly, “I
understand,” and hung up the phone.
calmly explained to
the others what had happened. The men took in the awful news quietly.
Then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had submitted his resignation
earlier that day because he objected to the mission, said,
President, I’m very, very sorry.”
ducked into the president’s bathroom and vomited.
rescue force had lost eight men, seven helicopters, and a C-130, and
had not even made contact with the enemy. It was a debacle. It defined
the word “debacle.”