Warning: The article is over 10,000 words in length.
The Desert One Debacle
By Mark Bowden in the Atlantic
In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.
Washington, D.C., April 11, 1980, Noon
The meeting began with Jimmy Carter’s announcement: “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am seriously considering an attempt to rescue the hostages.”
Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, knew immediately that the president had made a decision. Planning and practice for a rescue mission had been going on in secret for five months, but it had always been regarded as the last resort, and ever since the November 4 embassy takeover, the White House had made every effort to avoid it. As the president launched into a list of detailed questions about how it was to be done, his aides knew he had mentally crossed a line.
Carter had met the takeover in Iran with tremendous restraint, equating the national interest with the well-being of the fifty-three hostages, and his measured response had elicited a great deal of admiration, both at home and abroad. His approval ratings had doubled in the first month of the crisis. But in the following months, restraint had begun to smell like weakness and indecision. Three times in the past five months, carefully negotiated secret settlements had been ditched by the inscrutable Iranian mullahs, and the administration had been made to look more foolish each time. Approval ratings had nose-dived, and even stalwart friends of the administration were demanding action. Jimmy Carter’s formidable patience was badly strained.
And the mission that had originally seemed so preposterous had gradually come to seem feasible. It was a two-day affair with a great many moving parts and very little room for error—one of the most daring thrusts in U.S. military history. It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom. With spring coming on, the hours of darkness, needed to get the first part of this done, were shrinking fast.
Unrolling a big map, General David Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked the president and his inner circle of advisers through the elaborate plan, pointing out the location of the initial landing and refueling site, called Desert One; the various hide-site locations; the embassy, in central Tehran; the soccer stadium; and the airfield. It was risky; but short of leaving the hostages to their fate or engaging in some punitive action against Iran that would further endanger them, the president had few options. Jordan could see the course of Carter’s reluctant reasoning.
To maintain appearances, the president sent Jordan back to Paris for a scheduled second meeting with Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the Iranian foreign minister, with whom Jordan had secretly worked out the most recent failed agreement. Carter had at last severed all formal diplomatic ties with Iran; in this second face-to-face session with Jordan, Ghotbzadeh called the break in relations a tragic mistake that would drive his country into the arms of the Soviets. He also confirmed that peaceful efforts to resolve the crisis were at an impasse, and predicted that it would be many months before the hostages might be released. He was apologetic, but said that for him to take a “soft” position on the issue at that point was tantamount to political, if not actual, suicide. “I just hope your president doesn’t do anything rash,” he added. Ghotbzadeh didn’t know it, but his glum assessment clinched the decision to launch the rescue mission.
Colonel Charlie Beckwith, the creator of Delta Force, the Army’s new, top-secret counterterrorism unit, was summoned to the White House. He and Carter, both proud Georgians, swapped stories about their neighboring home counties. Beckwith, a brave and commanding soldier, was a big, gruff man whose energy filled a room—and he had flaws as outsized as his virtues. He was a difficult man, proud, tough, and at times arrogant and capricious; these traits were aggravated when he drank, which was often. But at the White House he was on his best behavior, impressing the president with his aura of blunt certainty as he presented the proposed mission in ever greater detail.
The colonel was an accomplished salesman. He had spent a career selling the idea of his elite unit, and now that it existed, he was eager to show what miracles it could perform. His enthusiasm was infectious. He and his men had been rehearsing the mission for so long that they could have 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 glory. In a sense, Beckwith’s long crusade to create Delta Force had been a rebellion against the mechanization and bureaucratization of modern warfare. He held to an old and visceral conviction: that war was the business of brave men. He loved soldiers and soldiering, and his vision was of a company of men like himself: impatient with rank, rules, and politics, focused entirely on mission. He had created such a force, choosing the best of the best and training them to perfection. They were not just good, they were magnificent. And now he would lead them into battle.
They 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 the hide sites and the vehicles that would carry the raiding party to the embassy. Eight 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 island 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, was packing his bags for a return trip to Tehran, where he would wait to meet with the rest of the force on the first night of the mission. Moving everything into position would take about two weeks.
Technically, Carter had not yet given the go-ahead, but when Beckwith left the White House, he was certain he had sold the mission. He flew to Delta’s stockade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and immediately 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.”
Gulf of Oman, April 24, 1980, Dusk
Through the failing light a lone plane moved fast and low over dark waters toward the coast of Iran. It was a big four-propeller U.S. Air Force workhorse, a C-130 Hercules, painted in a mottled black-and-green camouflage that made it all but invisible against the black water and the night sky. It flew with no lights. Inside, in the eerie red glow of the plane’s blackout lamps, seventy-four men struggled to get comfortable in a cramped, unaccommodating space. Only the 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 (to 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 helicopters find 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 town.
Just after dark, the Hercules moved in over the coast of Iran at 250 feet, well below Iranian radar, and began a gradual ascent to 5,000 feet. It was still flying dangerously low even at that altitude, because the land rose up abruptly in row after row of jagged ridges—the Zagros Mountains, which looked jet black in the gray-green tints of the pilots’ night-vision goggles. Its terrain-hugging radar was so sensitive that even though the plane was safely above the peaks, the highest ridges triggered the loud, disconcerting horn of its warning system. The co-pilot kept one finger over the override button, poised to silence it.
The decision had been made to fly into Iran on fixed-wing transports rather than helicopters, and since then Beckwith had added still more men to “Eagle Claw,” as the rescue mission was now code-named. Most notable among them were a group of soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, out of Fort Benning, Georgia, who would block off both ends of the dirt road that angled through Desert One and man Redeye missile launchers to protect the force on the first night in the event it was discovered and attacked from the air. A separate thirteen-man Army Special Forces team would assault the foreign ministry to free the three diplomats being held there: Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth, and Mike Howland. Also on Beckwith’s lead plane was John Carney, an Air Force major from the team that had slipped into Iran weeks earlier to scout the desert landing strip and bury infrared lights to mark a runway. He would command a small Air Force combat-control team that would orchestrate the complex maneuvers at the impromptu airfield.
Some of these men sat on and around the Jeep. The mood was relaxed. If there was one trait these men shared, it was professional calm.
They had 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 pieces of sophisticated telecommunications-monitoring equipment.
Days earlier the entire force had flown from Florida to Egypt on big Army jet transports. His mission under way, Beckwith had been 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 the refrigerators were finally emptied of beer, they were stocked with blood.
On the 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 electrical wires intersected and formed a big cross on the wall. Behind him was a poster-sized sheet displaying photographs of the Americans held hostage. Boykin 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 stone …
They had flown from Wadi Kena to Masirah, where they had hunkered in tents through a bright and broiling afternoon, fighting off large stinging flies and waiting impatiently for dusk. They would make a four-hour flight over the Gulf of Oman and across Iran to Desert One. The route had been calculated to exploit gaps in Iran’s coastal defenses, and to avoid passing over military bases and populated areas. Major Wayne Long, Delta’s intelligence officer, was at a console in the telecommunications plane with a National Security Agency linguist, who was monitoring Iranian telecommunications for any sign that the aircraft had been discovered and the mission compromised. None came.
Not long 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, crossing into Iran between the towns of Jask and Konarak, and flying even closer to the 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 was having mechanical problems. Eight widened the margin of error.
The men expected breakdowns. In their many rehearsals, they had determined that six choppers were essential for carrying all the men and equipment from Desert One to the hide sites. The load was finely calibrated; every assaulter had an assigned limit and was weighed to make sure he met it. Not all six choppers would be needed to haul the hostages and assaulters from the stadium the next night (two would do in a pinch), but some of the aircraft that made it to the hideouts were expected to fail the next morning. If seven were enough, eight provided comfort.
The 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 businessman, 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 West German businessmen. They had spent that day reconnoitering all of the various hide sites, the embassy, the foreign ministry, and the soccer stadium.
As the 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 on the actual mission, although there was still no telling if they were really going to go through with it. One thing President Carter had insisted on was the option of calling off the raid right up to the last minute: right before they were to storm the embassy walls. To make sure they could get real-time instructions from Washington, a satellite radio and relay system had been put in place at Wadi Kena.
Another 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 human-rights case against the former regime and America, Carter wanted to avoid killing Iranians, so he had insisted that if a hostile crowd formed during the raid, Delta should attempt to control it without shooting people. Burruss considered this ridiculous. He and his men were going to assault a guarded compound in the middle of a city of more than 5 million people, most of them presumed to be aggressively hostile. It was unbelievably risky; everyone on the mission knew there was a very good chance they would not get home alive. Wade Ishmoto, a Delta captain who worked with the unit’s intelligence division, had joked, “The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in.” And Carter had the idea that this vastly outnumbered force was first going to try holding off the city with nonviolent crowd control? Burruss understood the president’s thinking on this, but with their hides so nakedly on the line, shouldn’t they be free to decide how best to defend themselves? He had complained about the directive to General Jones, who had said he would look into it, but the answer had come back “No, the president insists.” So Burruss had made his own peace with it. He had with him one tear-gas grenade—one—which he intended to throw as soon as necessary; he would then use its smoke as a marker to call in devastatingly lethal 40 mm AC-130 gunship fire.
Delta was made up of men who would have felt crushed to be excluded from this mission. They were ambitious for glory. They had volunteered to serve with Beckwith and had undergone the trials of a grueling selection process precisely to serve in improbable exploits like this. Some of the men had read about wildly heroic feats in history and longed to have taken part; here was such a moment. If they pulled it off, it would go down as one of the boldest maneuvers in military history. They would snatch the innocent Americans from the jaws of the Islamist dragon. Their nation would cheer them in the streets!
The fact that people wouldn’t know exactly whom they were toasting made it all the more appealing. The heroism would be pure. They as individuals would not be celebrated—only their achievement. None of these men would be in ticker-tape parades, or sitting down for interviews on national TV, or having their pictures on the covers of magazines, or cashing in on fat book contracts. They were quiet professionals. In a world of brag and hype, they embodied substance. They would come home and, after a few days off, go right 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 soldiers would murmur, “He was on Eagle Claw.”
They 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. The 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.
Beckwith had 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 Dr. Strangelove had ridden a nuclear weapon down into doomsday waving his cowboy hat and hallooing, would be the perfect choice for the colonel.
Desert One, April 24, Late Evening
As 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 there?”
He looked through the co-pilot’s window and answered, “You’re in a haboob.”
The men in the cockpit laughed at the word.
“No, 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, and suggested they break radio silence and call “Red Barn,” the 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 miles.
As the C-130 approached the landing area, Carney activated his runway lights, but just then the plane’s newfangled FLIR (forward-looking infrared radar) detected 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 squadron 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.
The hard-packed surface of three weeks prior was now coated with a layer of sand the consistency of baby powder—ankle-deep in some places—that 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.
Fitch 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 kicking 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 passengers.
Suddenly the night 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 truck’s 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.
In 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.
Fitch mounted the steps and asked a Ranger sergeant, “What the hell is going on?”
“I’m trying to get these people off the bus, but they won’t move,” the sergeant said. The passengers were clearly bewildered. “Should I 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.”
One of Delta’s specialties was handling hostages—herding them, searching them, securing them. In the next few minutes, Fitch’s men firmly and 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.
The 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.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, 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.
Shortly after midnight 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.
“Welcome to World War Three!” Fitch greeted them.
Desert 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 landing site.
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.
The command station at Wadi Kena responded by relaying a request from the lead chopper for conditions at Desert One.
“Visibility five miles with negative surface winds,” reported Colonel Kyle, who was with Beckwith.
Then they heard from the lead chopper, which had a secure satellite radio similar to Beckwith’s at Desert One: “Fifty minutes out and low on fuel.”
The 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, and it would still be fairly dark when they arrived. Still, if they didn’t land at Desert One soon, they would be getting to their hiding places in broad daylight.
There 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.
Inside the Haboob, April 24, Midnight
Already, the Sea Stallions were down to six.
The original formation 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 to eat.
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.
As 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.
Looming 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.
So the chopper 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.
Major Jim Schaefer was now flying lead. One moment Seiffert’s aircraft had been in front 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 ground.
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.
“Is there anything in front of us?” Schaefer asked his co-pilot, Les Petty.
“Well, there’s a six-thousand-foot mountain in front of us,” Petty replied.
“How soon?” Schaefer asked.
“I don’t trust the machine,” Petty said, “and I don’t trust my map. I ain’t seen the ground in three hours. I’d say right now.”
So 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.
“Good job, Les,” he said. “I love you.”
Desert 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.
It 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 and couldn’t get a clear fix on anything below that would give him 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 carrier, for lack of fuel. Because he couldn’t see ahead or down, he might 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 turning back.
So they turned around.
Desert One, April 25, 1:00 A.M.
At 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.
Schaefer, 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.
He 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.
“What the hell’s going on?” the colonel asked. “How did you get so goddamn late?”
“First of all, we’re only twenty-five minutes late,” Schaefer said. “Second of all, I don’t know where anyone else is, because we went into a big dust cloud.”
“There’s no goddamn dust cloud out here,” Beckwith said, gesturing at the open sky. He had not been told about the haboobs on the way in.
“Well, there is one,” Schaefer said. He told Beckwith that the conditions coming in had been the worst he had ever flown through. His men were badly shaken. His chopper still flew but had been damaged. He wasn’t sure they could go on.
This was not what Beckwith wanted to hear.
“I’m going 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.
Two more choppers arrived, and one of them was having a problem. Captain B. J. McGuire’s helicopter had been flying with a warning light on in the cockpit that indicated trouble with one of the hydraulic systems. Fitch was the first person to reach McGuire on landing.
“I’m 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 communication.”
McGuire told Fitch about the problem with his helicopter. He said he thought the working hydraulic system was sufficiently trustworthy for him to continue.
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.
Beckwith, impatient to 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.
“Request permission to load, Skipper,” Beckwith said. “We need to get with it.”
Seiffert either didn’t hear him or ignored him. “Hey, remember me?” Beckwith asked. He then slapped the pilot’s helmet. Seiffert took off his helmet and confronted Beckwith angrily.
“I can’t guarantee we’ll get you to the next site before first light.”
“I don’t care,” Beckwith said.
Seiffert told him to go ahead and load his men.
Beckwith was moving from chopper to chopper, urging things forward, when another of the helicopter pilots stepped out and said, “The skipper told me to tell you we only have five flyable helicopters. That’s what the skipper told me to tell you.”
Looking around, the colonel could see that the rotor on one of the Sea Stallions had stopped turning. Someone had shut it down.
It 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 were 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.
When he found Kyle, he bellowed, “That goddamn number-two helo has been shut down! We only have five good choppers. You’ve got to talk to Seiffert and see what he says. You talk their language—I don’t.” Beckwith didn’t see mechanical problems with the helicopters; he 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.
Seiffert 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.
“The mission is an abort,” Smith said.
“What do you mean, it’s an abort?”
“Colonel Beckwith said it’s an abort,” Smith said. He explained that McGuire’s chopper couldn’t fly. This contradicted what 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.
“E.K., 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 wasn’t 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 radio.
“What’s going on?” he shouted over the din.
“Well, Seiffert said that helicopter can’t fly—that it’s not mission capable—and we’re down to five,” Beckwith said, disgusted.
Kyle 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 question 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.
In 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?”
“Sir, we have been through this in rehearsals,” Fitch said. “Who are we going to leave behind?”
Some 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.
But 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 delicate 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 word “ABORT,” and it was the only word on the page in capital letters.
“I need every man I’ve got and every piece of gear,” Beckwith said finally. “There’s no fat I can cut out.”
The decision was 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, “Damn. Damn.”
He 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 Desert 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.”
“What did Beckwith think?” Jordan asked.
Carter 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.
On the Runway, April 25, 2:00 A.M.
At Desert One there wasn’t time to dwell on the abort decision. Fitch directed his 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 inner 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.
Just behind their 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 ground.
So 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. Straightened, they could be retracted so that they wouldn’t cause drag in flight. 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 of reference.
To 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.
“How much power do we have, Les?” Schaefer asked, performing his usual checklist.
“Ninety-four percent,” Petty said.
Then 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 tanks, 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.
Beckwith pivoted the 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, trapped.
Inside 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 couldn’t 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.
He 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 inferno.
“Open the ramp!” Fitch shouted, but lowering it revealed more flames. The 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.
Still inside, Sergeant 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. Cheney’s 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 the fireball.
Pilots of the other craft quickly spread the word to their crews that they had not been attacked.
Haney 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 next to him, leaping to his feet.
Captain 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. He 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.
Fitch 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.
He saw two more men jump out—one of them Staff Sergeant Joe Beyers, the plane’s 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, explosives, and 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 cockpit.
“What’s wrong, Les, what’s wrong?” he asked, turning to his co-pilot. But Petty was already gone. He had jumped out the window on his side.
Schaefer 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 fiancée’s father—who had never seemed much impressed by his future son-in-law—commenting a few days hence on how the poor sap had 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.
The exploding aircraft 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.
Word of the calamity reached the command center in Wadi Kena in a hurried report: “We 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 cooking off.”
The 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 the Iranian bus passengers. The Delta officer ordered one of his men to disable the bus by ripping some wires from its engine.
As 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.
Washington, D.C., April 24, 6:00 P.M.
Word 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.
Jordan watched the president close his eyes, and then Carter’s jaw fell and his face went pale.
“Are there any dead?” Carter asked.
The room was silent. Finally the president said softly, “I understand,” and hung up the phone.
He 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, “Mr. President, I’m very, very sorry.”
Jordan ducked into the president’s bathroom and vomited.
America’s elite 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.”
About the Author
Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.
One of his earlier books many have heard of of since it became a movie, too. It is called "Black Hawk Down".