April 24, 2017


The Desert One Debacle : 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. (MARK BOWDEN,  MAY 2006, The Atlantic)

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.

When you read the mission plan it's hard to imagine why any commander would have given it the okay. 

Posted by at April 24, 2017 5:54 AM