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The New Face of War
Here is an excerpt from a chapter from Special Forces and Missions that I edited. Entitled "Catastrophe at Desert One," it is an account of the failed attempt to rescue Americans taken hostage in Iran in 1979. We enter the story as the rescue helicopters launch from an aircraft carrier cruising the Indian Ocean.

Aboard the USS Nimitz steaming sixty miles from the Iranian coast, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Seiffert, call sign Dash 1, lifted his Sea Stallion off the flight deck at dusk. Within minutes, his RH-53D and the other seven formed a loose diamond formation and together set off northward at 120 knots. All were painted desert tan without insignia. Now, in the fading light, the pilots adjusted their PVS-5 night-vision goggles for the flight to Desert One, 540 nautical miles away. The goggles, though a continuing discomfort, were, as Seiffert said, "better than having no eyes at all."

The choppers proceeded under strict radio silence. If something went wrong, the crew of one helicopter could inform the others by means of simple, prearranged light signals. Pilots would eyeball their way from one checkpoint to the next, using the Omega and PINS systems as a cross-check on position if necessary. They crossed the Iranian coast at an altitude of 100 feet, midway between two Iranian radar stations. Then, flying 200 feet above the ground, the helicopters followed the rising terrain through a mountain pass at 4,600 feet. "Once we crossed that first mountain, all the checkpoints kept coming up," said Major James Schaefer in Dash 3. "It was very reassuring." (Top)

One of the chopper pilots had seen the lead C-130 passing close overhead. The plane carried Beckwith, the forty Deltas of Major Logan Fitch's Blue element, the road-watch team of Army Rangers, the combat control team to manage traffic at Desert One, the mission truck drivers, and Colonel Kyle, the air boss—eighty-eight passengers in all, plus LAW (light antitank weapon) rockets and Redeye heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, two off-road motorcycles, and a jeep. just getting off the ground had been a feat. And if the heavily laden craft lost an engine during the first hour of flight-"Well," said the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Brenci, "that'll be kiss-off time."

Four hours later, within twenty miles of Desert One, Brenci toggled a radio transmitter to activate the infrared landing strip lights set out three and a half weeks earlier. Brenci's plane and two others following were MC-130s, also known as Combat Talon aircraft. Specifically outfitted for special operations, each was equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR), a television-like camera that produces an image from heat rather than visible light. As Brenci approached to land, the FLIR revealed a truck on the nearby road. He immediately pulled up and around to let the vehicle clear. Then he put the plane down—hard—at 10:40 p.m. It was the "worst landing of my life," he recalled later. Kyle radioed Vaught at Wadi Qena: "Foreman, Woodpecker. Q Tip." No Iranian would intercept the signal, which was beamed upward to a communications satellite overhead. (Top)

Delta had arrived, but already the operation had slipped ten minutes behind schedule. Time was critical. Delta had to reach the hide site before first light, and on that night there would be only nine hours, sixteen minutes of darkness. Refueling included, the trip was planned for eight hours. 

The men filed out of the C-130, and the Rangers set off to block the road. They were not yet in position when a pair of headlights approached. As the lights drew closer, a Ranger opened up with an M-16 on automatic. A large bus shuddered to a stop, the engine riddled. A Ranger sergeant leaped on board and stood in the aisle covering forty-three terrified Iranians with his assault rifle. Rice Bowl planners had prepared for this. Prisoners would be flown out on the C-130s and returned the next night to Manzariyeh on the C-141s scheduled to evacuate the hostages.

Almost immediately, another set of headlights gleamed through the dust. Someone tried to flag down the vehicle. It kept coming, so a Ranger loosed a shoulder-fired LAW rocket. The vehicle, a fuel truck, exploded in flames 300 feet high. More lights. A pickup truck slewed to a halt. Jumping from his cab, the driver of the burning vehicle raced to the pickup, which spun around and sped off. A Ranger jumped on his dirt bike to give chase, but the motor refused to start until the pickup was fast disappearing. (Top)

Probably smugglers, thought Beckwith, and not likely to rush to the police. Besides, the colonel had other things on his mind. Dick Meadows in Tehran had just radioed, using a very short burst transmission difficult for an enemy to catch: "All the groceries are on the shelf." He was ready with the trucks.

The other five C-130s arrived on schedule, but the helicopters had run into difficulty. Two hours away from the Nimitz, a warning light flashed on the instrument panel of Dash 6. A sensor had noted a drop in the pressure of nitrogen gas sealed inside the hollow spar of the chopper's rotor blades to alert pilots to the possibility of a crack. Dash 6 landed immediately, accompanied by Dash 8. Another indicator on the rotor hub confirmed the loss of pressure. Lightly loaded and flying slowly, the helicopter might have withstood several hours' use. But the aircraft would be heavy taking off from Desert One and would have to travel at nearly top speed-too risky. Dash 6 would fly no farther. Collecting classified documents and personal gear, the crew abandoned their machine and piled into Dash 8. (Top)

At the three-hour mark, the chopper pilots encountered a great white wall of dust—a freak haboob. The talc-fine powder swallowed up the aircraft. Visibility plummeted to less than a hundred feet. "It was like flying into a bowl of milk," one pilot recalled. Ed Seiffert turned Dash 1 around and, with his wing man close behind flew out of the dust cloud and landed. Since the operational plan called for at least five miles' visibility, the haboob constituted grounds for aborting the mission. Seiffert's radio operator contacted the command post in Egypt on his satellite link. Told of clear skies at Desert One, Seiffert decided to continue. 

Meanwhile, Dash 3, 4, and 5 moved closer together to keep one another in sight and flew on. Dash 7 and 8 brought up the rear, separated from each other and from the helicopters now ahead of them. Cockpit temperatures climbed to ninety-three degrees in the blinding dust, and the parched pilots called to their crew chiefs for water. In Dash 3, Major Jim Schaefer slowed the three-ship formation to ninety knots and began climbing to clear a 6,000-foot mountain ahead. At 5,900 feet, the dust thinned enough for him to spot the mountain off to his left. Then he plunged into a second haboob. Somewhere ahead lay a 9,000-foot mountain. Again visibility improved, and he saw the mountain slip by on his left. He had been in the dust for almost three hours. He was thirty-five minutes away from Desert One and overdue. (Top)

Schaefer could count himself lucky. In Dash 5, Lieutenant Rod Davis, the last of the Navy pilots, was in real trouble. A-n electrical power supply had overheated and failed. With the electricity went the chopper's artificial horizon and several other navigation aids. Having neither a real horizon to look at outside nor an artificial one on the instrument panel, any pilot is apt to develop vertigo, as Davis did. Before he could pass control to his copilot, the chopper had slipped into a forty-degree bank. Leveling the helicopter, the copilot descended to seventy-five feet; the better view of the ground from that height helped deter the disorientation that Davis had experienced. The aircraft's radiomagnetic compass and flight-control computer had also fallen victim to the power outage. In this condition, Davis's helicopter had become unfit to perform the rest of its mission. Davis briefly broke radio silence to announce his decision to abort, then reversed course for the Nimitz. He barely made it. When he arrived, he had almost run out of fuel. 

Schaefer in Dash 3 reached Desert One first-fifty minutes late. He landed, taxied to his assigned C-130 for refueling, and climbed exhausted from the cockpit. Beckwith stalked over, demanding to know where the rest of the choppers were. "They're either coming," said Schaefer, wearily, "or they're up against the side of a hill." Then he told of the haboobs. (Top)

The remaining five helicopters straggled in over the next thirty-five minutes, almost an hour and a half late. Even if the refueling proceeded without a hitch, Delta could not get to the hide site near Tehran before dawn. The helicopter crews had brought along decals that they could stick on the choppers to make them look like Iranian aircraft to a casual observer. Even so, things could get very sticky if the Iranians spotted the helicopters. True to his nickname, Chargin' Charlie had already made his decision: "No matter when the choppers arrived-and no matter when we arrived at the hide site-we would go ahead."

As the Sea Stallions refueled and Delta began to board, Lieutenant Colonel Seiffert climbed down from Dash 1. Visiting each of the pilots, he discovered another problem: Captain B. J. McGuire in Dash 2 confirmed what his instruments had been indicating for the past two hours. The helicopter's primary hydraulic system had failed. A leak in the line had bled the system dry, and the pump had burned out. He could fly—as he had been—on the backup system, but if it failed, a crash was certain. McGuire, a gutsy young aviator, wanted to go on. "No problem," he said. But Seiffert vetoed the idea.

There were now only five flyable choppers at Desert One, one fewer than needed. Mission rules stipulated cancellation. Air boss Kyle radioed Vaught at Wadi Qena. Vaught said to ask Beckwith if he thought he could continue. (Top)

All the aircraft engines had been left running to preclude restarting difficulties. In the swirling dust, amid the howl of C-130 and RH-53D turbines, Charlie Beckwith faced a serious decision. Even with six machines, the helicopters were each 6,000 pounds overweight. With only five aircraft, he would have to leave twenty men behind—but which twenty? He thought: "In a tight mission, no one is expendable even before you begin." All the meticulous planning would be shot to hell. And what if another, or even two more machines gave out? How would he extract Delta and the hostages? A bloodbath, a slaughter, could result. The mission was to save Americans, not get them killed along with hundreds of Iranians. He turned to Kyle. "Ain't no way, Jim. No way," Beckwith shouted. "You tell me which of those 130s you want me to load up. Delta's going home."

Monitoring his satellite radio at the hide site near Tehran, Dick Meadows heard from the command post at Wadi Qena: "Spare parts will not arrive due to broken truck. Test canceled." Incredulous, Meadows requested clarification. Vaught broke in on the circuit: "Close test base Romeo," he ordered peremptorily. Meadows, his Air Force sergeant, and the Green Berets returned to Tehran. In the next few days, all but one would slip out of Iran. Fred, fluent in Farsi, stayed behind to ensure that everyone else was safely away. (Top)

At Desert One, the force began deplaning from the helicopters and filing onto the C-130s. Beckwith went from one plane to another, working out how many men would load onto each one of the C-130s and worrying that the pilots might take off without them. "For God's sake, don't leave," he yelled to one aviator. "Ain't nobody going to leave here, Colonel, until we got everybody," shouted back the pilot.

The C-130s had been on the ground for nearly three hours, with their engines running the entire time. If the C-130 carrying Delta's Blue team did not take off within five minutes, it could not reach Masirah Island without tanker assistance. But before the C-130 could taxi, Jim Schaefer had to move Dash 3 from its parking spot behind the transport. The prop wash from the C-130 as it increased power would stir up enough dust to choke the chopper's engines. Schaefer could not just taxi out of the way; a tire had come off its rim as the chopper crossed a furrow in the sand left by one of the C-130s. He would have to lift off and reposition. (Top)

Visibility at Desert One had become almost as bad as in the haboobs. Even at idle power, the churning helicopter rotors and the C-130 turboprops kicked up small tornadoes of dust. As Schaefer increased the pitch of the rotor blades, they bit into the Iranian night air, lifting the helicopter into a hover. An Air Force combat controller stood nearby as a reference point for the pilot.

Perhaps it was fatigue from the flight through the haboobs. Perhaps it was a psychological low, now that the mission had been scrubbed. Whatever the cause, to Schaefer, watching through night-vision goggles, the controller appeared to back to the left, a sign that the helicopter was drifting to the right. Schaefer's misinterpretation caused him to make a fatal adjustment-toward the C-130.

"I felt a shudder and felt two thunks," recalled Logan Fitch, Blue element commander sitting inside the transport. He and his men scrambled for the right-side door, the only one not instantly curtained in flames. By some miracle, they and aircrew members in the back of the plane all escaped. Of the seven men on the flight deck, two were blown clear by explosions; the rest perished. (Top)

Aboard the helicopter, Schaefer's copilot climbed out a window and dashed away through a puddle of fuel, as yet unignited. Schaefer feared-without cause-that the intense heat in the cockpit might set off the bullets in his .45 automatic. He shrugged out of his shoulder holster, unbuckled his safety harness, and dived from the cockpit, cracking two vertebrae as his head hit the ground. Someone picked him up and helped him to a C-130. The rest of his crew burned to death. (Top)


THE NEW FACE OF WAR: Special Forces and Missions.
Copyright Time-Life Books, 1990

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