Desert One Loadmaster Challenges

By CMSgt (Ret) Taco Sanchez

This article was first published Nov 2013 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4 page 20.

One of the major requirements we needed to solve was how to refuel the helicopters at Desert One. The USMC RH-53s were not equipped for aerial refueling.

In the months before the hostages were taken, we had finished testing the procedures to airdrop 5,000 lb blivet to the SEALs in order to refuel their boats in the open ocean. We found that two G-12D parachutes and a 15 ft extraction chute as a pilot chute worked well.

Col Foley and his Army team from the Airborne Board designed a system where a single C-130 could airdrop five blivets, each mounted on a 463L pallet, and a package of pumps, hoses, and filters. They determined that the G-11A parachute was better suited for the operation.

They attached the system to the airplane anchor cable via simultaneous release static lines. Although the experienced Talon loadmasters totally disagreed with this procedure, we were told they were the experts. Our tests using a single blivet showed the fuel could be delivered safely and accurately.

In January, three Talons deployed to Davis Monthan AFB for a full rehearsal. We rigged the aircraft for simultaneous release per the instructions from the Airborne Board, but asked to substitute intermediate release gates in order to separate the blivets as they exited the aircraft. The testers determined that a delay system was not required.

All three aircraft suffered damage during the airdrops. The left anchor cable was snapped in two at the troop doors on my aircraft. The second Talon had both aft anchor arms torn from the aircraft. Number 3 had one anchor cable torn in two at the wheel well and the other aft anchor cable arm ripped from the aircraft. And, most of the fuel blivets streamed into the ground and were destroyed.

After landing, we debriefed and the loadmasters developed the intermediate gate system that is still used today for heavy CDS. The next night, the new procedures worked perfectly—all blivets were successfully delivered without incident.

The other problem we needed to solve was how to rapidly offload the Rangers and Combat Controllers with their vehicles and equipment.

In Nov 1979, there were no procedures for these tactics. We used standard airlift practices and equipment: 10,000 lb chains and locking devices to restrain the gun jeep on the ramp and 5,000 lb cargo straps for the motorcycles. We used the standard ground loading ramps for all onload and offload operations. At first our light configuration was to just dim the white lights. We then switched to red lights. Finally, we settled on just the flag unlock lights for the cargo door as the other lights produced too much light. No one in the cargo compartment was using NVGs when we first started.

During the flight the Rangers were seated on the bare floor or in the jeep. We flew for a week or so in this configuration which was both uncomfortable, as well as dangerous.

We taught the Rangers to remove the tie-down devices once the ramp was horizontal. During these operations we had numerous incidents of tie down devices and ground loading ramps being inadvertently thrown out of the aircraft or becoming unhooked. I spent a lot of time policing up equipment on the runway while avoiding other landing aircraft and the lost Rangers wandering around the airfield.


Bryan Casey shared the 547th Intelligence Squadron's commemoration of the 40th anniversary of EAGLE CLAW/DESERT ONE including an interview with CMSgt (Ret) Taco Sanchez, virtually (given the pandemic). Click on the image to open the Youtube presentation.

The loadmasters at Hurlburt got together and came up with an innovative solution to the rapid offload problem. We used 5,000 lb tie-down straps for all vehicles and attached the hook end to the aircraft and the ratchet end at the vehicle so that they stayed connected to the aircraft. We also drilled holes in the attaching points of the ground loading ramps and used safety ties to keep them in place.

To improve the conditions for the Rangers sitting on the floor for hours and hours during the infil, we procured old mattresses from DRMO and used tie-down straps to secure them. We called this the “Sealy configuration.”

There is better equipment today, but the procedures we developed that winter are still being used today.

This article was first published Nov 2013 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4 page 20.

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