A Crewmember's Perspective
By Robert L. Brenci, Col, USAF (Retired)
This article was first published Nov 2013 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4 page 19.
It was just another bright, sunny afternoon in Masirah, an island just off the Arabian Peninsula. Combat Talon MC-130E (#64-0565) was taxiing out to begin a mission that would eventually contribute to a major evolution of US Air Force special operations. The aircraft commander taxied the aircraft into position on the runway. Preparing for takeoff, under strict radio silence, he asked the flight engineer, MSgt Bubba Almanzar for the usual takeoff data. “I don’t have that information,” he replied. “The flight manuals were left behind to lighten the load.”
“What’s takeoff speed?” queried the pilot.
The flight engineer answered, “Just check the engines at max power, release brakes and when we get to the end of the runway – rotate!”
There was really no need for the takeoff data, since the charts did not cover extreme weight of this bird— estimated at above 190,000 lbs. Maximum gross weight for the C-130 is 155,000 lbs, and even the Emergency War Plan (EWP) max gross weight is 175,000 lbs. So, we pushed the engines to the firewall, released the brakes, and rolled and rolled and rolled down the runway. Finally, the Combat Talon leapt into the air as the runway disappeared under the nose. It was 24 April 1980, and the attempt to rescue 49 hostages held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at the US Embassy in Tehran – Operation Eagle Claw – had begun.
The vast majority of current and former special operators are quite familiar with what happened that night at Desert One and the tragic immediate consequences and aftermath of the mission. So, this is not an attempt to recount those specifics, but rather to give the various perspectives from a few of the crewmembers who were involved. The intent is also to share information on some of the procedures and techniques during the five months of preparation for the mission.
The story of Eagle Claw actually began a few months before members of the Revolutionary Guard stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held American citizens hostage (4 Nov 1979). In August of 1979, the annual Combat Talon Management Review (CTMR) conference was held at Hurlburt Field. During the CTMR, aircrew personnel from the 1st SOS at Kadena AB, Okinawa, presented a briefing on the feasibility of using night vision goggles (NVGs) for fixed wing, blacked-out approaches and landings. The conclusion drawn at the time was that although NVGs were successfully being used by helicopter crews, NVG landings were not possible with fixed wing aircraft.
In mid-November 1979, I was the Chief Pilot at the 8th SOS. Lt Col Les Smith, the Operations Officer, contacted me at Hurlburt Field via secure phone and told me to go to the command post for a secure call. Les had been dispatched to the Pentagon with two other mission planners on the 16th of November and was busily working the difficult problem of infiltration and exfiltration routing for Operation Rice Bowl. This was the cover name for the mission to rescue the hostages from the embassy in Iran.
It may seem strange in today’s age of advanced technology and widespread secure communications equipment, but in 1979 the command post was the only location on base that had a secure communications capability. Picture a telephone “booth” within the command center—that was it. During that phone call I was directed to select two crews and begin training that evening utilizing NVGs. Our task was to develop appropriate cockpit procedures for blacked-out landings. It had already been determined that the MC-130E Combat Talon was the appropriate airframe for this mission because it offered the combination of inflight refueling, terrain following radar, defensive countermeasures, and precision navigation capabilities needed for the operation. This was also before GPS systems were standard aircraft equipment, so we used a suction cup to mount an antenna for a commercial GPS to the window over the pilot’s head. The Talon crews also had the necessary training in blacked-out, short field takeoffs and landings.
That first training sortie was an adventure. Initially, the copilot in the right seat, wearing NVGs, would fly the aircraft using visual cues and receiving airborne radar approach (ARA) directions from the navigators. The idea was for the aircraft commander in the left seat to take over control at the final portion of the approach and make the landing without using NVGs. After a few very hard landings by the initial trainees and problems with depth perception, we changed the procedures and the aircraft commander in the left seat began wearing the goggles. The copilot still flew the ARA on the instrument gauges down to the minimum approach altitude. Once the aircraft commander located the runway, he took over visually and landed the aircraft. This technique proved to be the safest and most sensible solution, and it became the standard procedure for all aircrews.
Due to the highly classified nature of Operation Rice Bowl, the initial cadre of operators and planners were required to maintain strict secrecy which resulted in some early difficulties. The NVGs available were the first generation PVS-5s. The only NVGs at Hurlburt Field were the property of the 20th SOS, our helicopter-flying, sister squadron. We managed to borrow a handful of sets from them, which raised a few eyebrows since a few months earlier it had been determined that NVGs were not compatible for fixed wing flight.
Also, the squadron commander, Lt Col Roland Guidry, had been recently assigned and was still going through the MC-130E upgrade program. Due to newness, he was unfamiliar with the crewmembers’ individual skills. As he was not yet mission qualified he not been briefed on any of the Rice Bowl training plans or operational information. Fortunately, he accepted that we were “involved” in something and did not pursue the issue. The same situation was true for our wing vice commander, Col TWA Stuart, who had also not been briefed on the operation. The wing commander, Col Dick Dunwoody, had been dispatched to Guam with the AC-130 gunship contingent (Editor’s note: this deployment was covered by Lt Col Jim Lawrence in Air Commando Journal, Vol 1, Issue 4, Summer 2012).
This awkward situation was a problem during the first week of our training – we were flying at night and crew resting during the day, thus the pressure to maintain operational security (OPSEC) was considerable. I finally requested that the Pentagon brief my immediate bosses in order to relieve me from being questioned about our activities. Once this was accomplished, it made life easier for everyone.
As a group, we expected a deployment to somewhere at any moment, but once it was realized that training and planning would drag on, it became necessary to brief an increasing number of personnel. Amazingly, OPSEC was strictly maintained for the next five months.
At this point, I need to speak to the prevailing attitudes among all the crewmembers in the 8th SOS during this initial training phase. After a few days of unusual activity in the squadron, together with the headlines in the media, people were putting two and two together. As the acting ops officer, hardly a day went by without one or more individuals popping into my office to volunteer (and practically beg) to become involved with “whatever the hell is going on.” And, of course, as time passed, the need to train more crews was recognized. Those initial two crews evolved over the next few months to become five crews.
Together with the three crews of the 1st SOS, under the command of Lt Col Ray Turczynski, this made up the final fixed wing contingent that would eventually fly the Eagle Claw mission in April. The desire to become involved in this operation, no matter the risk, was – and remains today – a hallmark of all special operations personnel.
Now, how did we go about training to develop helicopter refueling procedures? In order to achieve the objective of refueling helicopters at a designated location, it was initially decided to airdrop 5,000 lb blivets loaded on pallets. The initial attempt of a one blivet drop was successful. Next, we needed to increase the load to five blivets in order to carry enough fuel for the rendezvous helicopters to complete the mission. In the early weeks of December 1979, training deployments to Arizona tested the concept and it was a failure. During a two-ship airdrop at Yuma, as the multiple pallets exited the aircraft, the acceleration forces caused spacing problems and the pallets literally piled up, resulting in parachute deployment failure. The fuel blivets ruptured upon ground impact. In order to remedy the problem, a gate system was devised by the loadmasters and this allowed enough spacing between the individual pallets to permit safe exit from the aircraft. Using this revised procedure, the next airdrop mission was successful. However, a new problem arose. Upon ground impact, the blivets were so far apart that it took significantly more time for the Army Ranger team already on the ground to move the blivets into position to refuel the helicopters. Air-dropping blivets proved to be a feasible approach to refuel the helicopters, but only as a last resort.
Another possible option was to land a C-130 with the required amount of fuel in bladders onboard the aircraft and use ground refueling equipment to refuel the helicopters. This would ensure the security of the fuel, however a suitable landing/rendezvous location would have to be located. The decision was made to use EC-130E aircraft from the airborne battlefield command, control, and communications squadron at Keesler AFB, MS, because they could be refueled inflight and had the necessary hardware in the cargo area to transport the fuel bladders. The expanded numbers of fixed wing assets provided the flexibility to carry both the necessary fuel load and the required ground forces (Special Forces, 1/75 Rangers, and CCT) needed for mission success. Ultimately, airlanding the fuel and troops to rendezvous with USMC helicopters at the Desert One landing site became part of the final plan.
The months of December 1979 and January 1980 were taken up with numerous training deployments – typically on the weekends – to various locations in the US Southwest. We were developing and refining techniques for blacked-out NVG landings, inflight refueling without communications, airfield seizure, helicopter refueling, and infiltration and exfiltration procedures. This training continued into the spring and by now, the 1st SOS and 8th SOS crews were working closely on all exercises with the Special Forces, the Rangers, and the KC-135 and C-141 crews to develop Day One and Day Two procedures. The two-night plan had been approved in Washington.
In mid-April, three MC-130 and three EC-130 aircraft manned by 8th SOS crews were secretly deployed to Wadi Kena (called the Alpha location) in Egypt. Meanwhile, their sister unit, the 1st SOS, was departing Kadena AB with three MC-130s on a clandestine journey through Diego Garcia and final join-up at Wadi Kena. In preparation for Day One, the largest portion of the force transited the Red Sea and set up camp on Masirah Island, Oman. Operation Eagle Claw was about to commence.
As suggested at the start of this article, Dragon One’s takeoff roll from the Masirah airfield was longer than usual. Rotation at the end of the runway. Silence! We staggered off and climbed at an unusually low rate due to the heavy gross weight of the aircraft. It was just past 1800 local time. There was no chatter in the cockpit as we leveled off at 1,000 feet. As we crossed the Gulf of Oman, it remained quiet – any engine problems at this point and we would be in trouble. Since it was still daylight, numerous types of ships, boats and other sailing vessels were visible below. Finally, after an hour or so, everything seemed to be going as planned so the crew began to relax a bit, but we had plenty of surprises ahead.
En-route to Desert One, we flew a modified terrain following profile, varying from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground. This allowed us to conserve precious fuel and also remain clear of the numerous Iranian observation towers that dotted the country. Official darkness came and all was operating smoothly for the next few hours. That’s when we entered the “haboob” – a severe type of dust storm peculiar to the Middle East and Africa. Would we be able to arrive at our landing zone in the clear? For a while, it seemed we might not be able to rendezvous with the helicopters at the Desert One landing site after all. About half an hour from destination, everyone breathed sighs of relief as we popped out into the clear. We were okay.
Five minutes from our objective, the infra-red (IR) landing lights which had been set up weeks before by the “Father of USAF Special Tactics,” Maj John Carney, were remotely switched on from the cockpit.
The covert, IR landing lights illuminated and we lined up for a runway clearing pass. On the road to the left of the landing zone, we spotted a truck. In order to remain unobserved, we maneuvered to stay well clear and behind the vehicle and it eventually moved out of sight. During our next attempt to make a surveillance pass, we were in too close and executed a “go-around.” The area seemed clear of obstacles. On the next pass, we landed – an extremely hard landing that took my breath away – and possibly loosened some teeth. I was hoping that the MC-130E would remain in one piece at the completion of the landing roll. It was and I called “Go” – the signal for all the troops in the cargo compartment, Col Charlie Beckwith and his Special Forces and the 1/75th Ranger Battalion airfield seizure team, to exit the aircraft. Looking to my left from the cockpit, on the parallel dirt road, the roadblock team was stopping and surrounding a civilian bus. They quickly secured the vehicle and the 44 (terrified I’m sure) Iranian citizens on board.
As we slowly made a 180° degree turn with Dragon One, it confirmed that the nose wheel steering and nose gear were still intact and working properly. What we did not realize at that moment, was that although the aircraft itself was still flyable, the SATCOM secure communications capability had been disabled due to the hard landing. This would prove to be consequential later.
We taxied into position for the ensuing takeoff and departure down the Desert One “runway” in the opposite direction from which we had landed. Suddenly, directly ahead of us an immense fireball lit up the sky. An approaching truck had been observed on the road to the west and had been promptly destroyed with an anti-tank weapon. It was a fuel truck and the desert sky was lit up like a giant bonfire blaze. As the remaining fixed wing aircraft began to arrive in the landing area, there was initially some thought that the fireball was due to an aircraft crash. Quickly, they realized through secure communications that Dragon One was safely on the deck.
Once all three Dragon birds (MC-130s) and the Republic (EC-130) tankers were safely on the ground and while awaiting the arrival of the RH-53s, a decision had to be made on how to handle the captured bus passengers. It was initially decided that the passengers would be flown out of the area and back to Masirah Island on board Dragon One. Preparations then began to load them up on the Talon. At this point, we had been on the ground for well over an hour so we were carefully monitoring our fuel status. Our requirement was to have enough fuel at takeoff to make it to a pre-determined rendezvous with a KC-135 tanker on the return flight. Before we could load the frightened civilians, however, a search of the cargo compartment was ordered. What now, I thought? Apparently, one of the two Iranian generals who had been accompanying the Special Forces team had suddenly realized he no longer had his loaded revolver in his possession. Perhaps it had been misplaced somewhere on our aircraft? A rapid search of the cargo compartment did not locate the weapon. Rather than risk having one of the Iranian civilians find the loaded pistol, and with time constraints reaching a critical phase, the plan changed to placing the passengers on another C-130. Dragon One was then cleared for takeoff – without the 44 Iranians.
As we rolled down the runway, all seemed normal. The copilot, Capt George Ferkes, was calling out the airspeed at 10 knot increments. At about 90 knots, the calls slowed – we were not going to achieve computed takeoff speed. Apparently, the consistency of the sand at Desert One was causing us to bog down and it felt as if we were glued to the surface. As the last IR landing light passed out of sight, and blackness enveloped us, I yanked the nose wheel off the ground and we staggered into the night.
Once airborne, we headed back to base, unaware that we did not have secure communications capability. As a result, we did not realize until we had landed that the Eagle Claw mission had been aborted because not enough helicopters had made it to the Desert One site to accomplish the Day Two objective. What happened afterwards, the unfortunate catastrophe that occurred when Marine Helicopter 3, while repositioning to refuel, collided with Republic 4. Eight crewmembers were lost. Three Marines and five airmen made the ultimate sacrifice.
Considering that we had very nearly departed the scene with the bus passengers on board, a “what if” might be in order. What if the lost revolver had been recovered or located and the 44 Iranians had landed with us at Masirah? Would the United States have suddenly been involved in a political stalemate, accused of taking “hostages” to counter the 53 Americans held in Tehran? Would President Carter have allowed the immediate release of the Iranians with no concessions? Or would he have kept them as bargaining chips, demanding the release of the American hostages? Interesting questions to ponder, but no one will ever know the answers.
Enroute to Masirah Island, we rendezvoused with the KC-135 tanker using the no comms/blacked-out procedures. Since at that point we had enough fuel on board to safely recover, we elected not to hook up. At this point in the mission, I remember feeling completely exhausted. The adrenaline rush had long since worn off. This was obvious when we began our long descent for landing. The copilot, George, had to continually remind me that I was drifting left on final approach. We made an uneventful landing and taxied to our parking spot. It was early morning and still very dark on the ramp. Expecting to hear some loud exuberance from the ground personnel when the crew door opened – we were safely back and the next portion of the mission was to commence that evening – I was disappointed. It was very quiet and somber. It was then, when our loadmaster Duke Wiley announced in the cockpit that there had been a terrible accident.
We spent the next few hours awaiting the recovery of the remaining aircraft. When Republic 6, flown by Maj Jerry Uttaro arrived, they offloaded the injured survivors from Republic 4 and Helicopter 3. Lt Jeff Harrison with minor injuries appeared in shock. The severely burned radio operator, SSgt JJ Beyers, was in critical condition, as were the surviving helicopter crewmembers. It was dawn and the C-141 that had been dispatched to evacuate the injured was landing. The wounded personnel were quickly transferred and soon they were on their way to medical facilities in Europe.
Perhaps the most poignant moment that day was when the 8th SOS commander gathered the crews in our tent facility and had an obligatory roll call. As individuals responded with the standard “here” or “present” there was silence five times – Hal Lewis – Lyn McIntosh – Rick Bakke – Tom McMillan – Joel Mayo. Now everyone knew officially that we had lost some of our own. Tears flowed and sadness filled the room.
The next few days were a confusing blur of emotions. Our crew was the first to return stateside.
Col Tom Wicker, 1st SOW/DO and one of the on-scene commanders at Desert One, had accompanied us on Dragon One during the mission and was with us headed home. International headlines were rampant with stories of the failed rescue attempt and the catastrophic disaster. Flags were at half-mast and our nation mourned. A day after arriving back at Hurlburt Field, I had the unenviable task of accompanying Col Wicker on an official death notification. The saddest moment of all.
About the Author: Col (Ret) Robert L. Brenci, is the former commander of the 8th Special Operations Squadron. He is a graduate of the USAF Academy, class of 1963. In April 1980, he was aircraft commander of Dragon One, the lead aircraft for Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to free American hostages held in Iran. Although Rice Bowl/Eagle Claw was unsuccessful, the mission paved the way for future innovations and tremendous growth and expansion of USAF Special Operations Forces.
This article was first published Nov 2013 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4 page 19.