Reflections on Operations RICE BOWL/EAGLE CLAW

The Night Two Plan

By Bob Meller, Lt Col, USAF (Retired)

This article was first published Nov 2013 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4 page 24.

It was April 1980, and my crew was at Wadi Kena, Egypt, waiting for word of how the Night One insertion of the joint task force (JTF) into the Desert One site was going, I asked Col Bob Pinard, 1st SOW Chief of Maintenance and my former 1st SOS squadron commander from Okinawa, where he had found a glass of bourbon on this arid Egyptian night. He stopped, turned to me and the majority of my crew and said, “Bob, here’s a toast to a successful mission. They’re airborne out of Masirah.” Operation Eagle Claw, after almost six months of intense, exciting and truly innovative preparation, had finally begun.

After a fitful night of attempted sleep, occasional trips to the JTF Command Center, I watched the sun rise out of our eastern exposure and noticed Maj Gen James Vaught’s radio operator walking out of the command post bunker with all his gear. He had bunked with our crew and was going to fly with us that second night as General Vaught’s radio operator. He would be an integral part of the crew of Dragon One, the lead Combat Talon on Night Two. We would be the first in and the last out. I asked him why he was taking all his gear and he just kept walking towards a truck where Maj Jack Launder, one of my navigators, was standing. Jack yelled that Hal Lewis’ EC-130 refueler and a helicopter had had an accident, that there were eight dead, and the Night Two mission was scrubbed. We were in shock. Col Pinard came into the hangar and officially told us the tragic news that Hal, Lyn McIntosh, Rick Bakke, Tom McMillan, and Joel Mayo were dead. He also said that JJ Byers was in real bad shape and Jeff Harrison was injured. Even though I had lost close friends, my first thought was, “…, we FAILED”.

Introduction:

I was the Stan/Eval Chief and Combat Talon pilot for the 1st SOW in Nov 79. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of the first aircraft commanders for the Iran Hostage Rescue mission. It was, without a doubt, the most rewarding, exhilarating, and fulfilling time in my entire 24-year, Air Force career. And, it was also the worst. The things we did and the procedures we developed, literally “on the fly,” are still being used today.

My crew, with the exception of my loadmasters TSgt Dave Chesser and SSgt Ron Thomas, who flew on Capt Russ Tharp’s aircraft, did not fly to Desert One on Night One. Our job was to lead the recovery of Special Forces, Rangers, and hostages on Night Two. The plan was for Chesser and Thomas to rejoin us at Wadi Kena for the Night Two mission.
To quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”

Reflections/Observations:

Sympathetic aborts: In 1979 the Air Force was using peacetime operating procedures. The tankers back then belonged to the old Strategic Air Command (SAC), which is where the bombers, tankers, and strategic missiles were assigned. Typically, when one tanker aborted from a training mission, the wingman did a “sympathetic” abort and did not take off either. One night over Texas during one of the first major rehearsals for the Night One mission, we experienced the effects of a sympathetic abort just as our flight of MC-130s approached the air refueling initial point. Without tankers we had to cancel the mission and the entire joint task force had to return to our starting point. Col Kyle had a serious talk with the SAC liaison who was not allowed to tell the tanker crews what the implications of their abort had caused, but from then on, there were no more sympathetic aborts. The tanker crews got the message very quickly and were always there whenever we needed them.

The boom operators did have little bit of learning curve doing things at low altitude, slower than they normally did with the bombers and fighters, no-communications, blacked-out, and with those big props spinning in the dark. One night, while we were on someone’s right wing, waiting our turn to refuel, we could see the “boomer” was having a difficult time plugging in. He was bouncing the probe all over the top of the Talon. Even during blacked-out refueling, we kept the slipway lights on, but he was having a real bad night. He finally plugged in, but the Talon crew got a bit scared that night. As the training and rehearsals progressed, though, the boomers got better and we never again had to worry about them not begin able to make the contact.

Blonde Flight: Several Talons were winging west again, this time using a “Blonde” call sign. We reached the point where we needed to descend and enter low-level to the objective area. Blonde Lead called air traffic control to cancel our instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance. Once the controller cleared us to descend on that clear, dark night over the western US, he asked, “Where are all you blondes going tonight?” There was nothing but silence from the Blondes. “Well, be good,” he said.

Field 6 Landing: Before heading west one night, we had to pick up a load of Army Rangers at Eglin Auxiliary Field #6, which is at Camp Rudder, the home of the Ranger training camp. Field #6 is about five minutes flying time from Hurlburt. It is also a relatively short runway with no navigation aids. As it is isolated, in the middle of the Eglin Range Complex, we had practiced NVG landings there. Despite all the new, innovative, and somewhat dangerous things we had been doing, the approach and landing that night was as intense as it gets.

It was truly a “dark and stormy night” and a lot was packed into those five minutes. We had a heavy aircraft and there were severe thunderstorms in the vicinity. We had the blackout curtain up in the cockpit to keep the front as dark as possible. Because of the short duration of the flight, we had not planned for an NVG landing. Also, we feared that a lightning flash at the worst moment would black out the PVS-5 goggles. The right navigator, Jack Launder, kept the KA-band radar expertly tuned to the field while the left navigator, Joe McBride, monitored the inertial navigation system. It was raining really hard and although it was a sweet approach, it made for a true white knuckle landing. All four Talons landed safely, picked up the soldiers, and the rest of that night’s training came off without a problem.

Sniper Perch: After the concept of airdropping the fuel blivets did not provide the results that the JTF leadership had hoped for (Editor’s note: See Bob Brenci and Taco Sanchez’ article, this edition.), the planners chose the airfield seizure option. Several isolated airstrips in the US’ southwestern desert areas were used to practice this option. The remote, Iranian airfield initially chosen as the helicopter refueling site, code named “Fez” had a small building at the end of the runway that needed immediate attention as the first aircraft rolled out. “Taco” Sanchez, one of our loadmasters, and a Ranger planner brainstormed the idea of removing the flight deck overhead escape hatch, installing a stabilized shooting seat, and lighting up the building and occupants on roll out. I suggested a side limiter to restrict shooting into the props. This idea was eventually unnecessary when the leadership decided to forego an airfield seizure and use a suitable landing area in the Iranian desert for Night One, the Desert One site.

Ranger Training: An airfield seizure was always the plan for Night Two and had been for most of the planning for Night One, also. This meant continuous training with the Ranger company assigned to the mission. As an airfield seizure is an extremely complex operation, this required extensive ground training and a series of full mission profile rehearsals. We learned early on that following proper aircraft ground movement after landing was critical to the Rangers’ execution of their mission. Having the aircraft in the wrong parking location or getting out of sequence on the ground could and, unfortunately did, cause problems and injuries. One of the lessons we learned was to make John Carney’s combat controllers responsible for controlling aircraft movements on the ground. The Ranger task force commander, Col Williford, emphatically stressed to us that his Rangers would always get the job done, but we must put them in the correct place to do it.

C-141 NVG Training: Prior to Eagle Claw, there was no such thing as the Special Operations Low Level (SOLL) capability in Military Airlift Command’s (MAC) conventional force. I was sent to Charleston AFB, SC, to train the C-141 instructor crews in NVG landings. We began the flying training down at Hurlburt with a day sortie using heavily-tinted welding goggles instead of NVGs. We found that the images, minus the green speckled effect that occurred in the NVG light tubes, were strikingly similar to the actual NVG visuals. The C-141 crews were fully on board and eager to be a part of the mission. The MAC general that flew on the training sorties with us offered me a job as a C-5 pilot at Dover if I ever wanted to get into “Big MAC.” I declined.

Breakfast at Norton: After one major rehearsal, the Air Force contingent recovered at Norton AFB in the early morning hours. Since operational security was always a top priority for us, I was shocked to realize that I still had the mission plans and procedures still with me. Joe McBride looked on as I burned the papers in the ashtray (yes, the Norton BOQs still had them in 1980). This proved to not be the best idea I ever had. The burning papers set off smoke alarms in the building and much swearing was heard up and down the hallway as we woke up the sleeping residents. Joe looked at me and said, “Well, Meller, I think it’s time we go to the O Club for breakfast.” The fire department emptied out our BOQ and the club had a large, angry crowd for breakfast. Joe and I never said a word—ever.

Miracle on Ice: The 1980 Winter Olympics were in full swing and we had a day off between mission rehearsals while flying out of Norton. One night we ended up in a San Bernardino watering hole to watch the young US hockey team get crushed again by the Soviet pros in the semi-final match. We watched in amazement as the “college boys” made good coach Herb Brooks’ pre-game speech of “great moments are born from great opportunity,” and stunned the Soviets and the world—US 4, USSR 3.

Two nights later, 24 Feb, as we were flying from Norton to Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ, the sector air traffic controller came on frequency and said, “US 4, Finland 2. We won the Gold.” Everyone on the frequency that night let out a cheer.

At the time, none of us knew that Coach Brooks had delivered another prophetic speech. In the locker room, between the second and third periods of that final game, and the US losing 2-1 to the Finns, he emphatically told the team, “If you lose this game, you will take it with you to your graves!” How right he was, as we sadly found out two months later.

Problems with the Sealy Configuration: The forward urinals on our Herks had been removed to prevent under-deck corrosion. The only places left to relieve oneself were the two urinals on either side of the ramp area. With soldiers sleeping on the mattresses during the long sorties, what we called the “Sealy Configuration” (also described in Brenci and Sanchez’ article), it was too easy to inadvertently step on someone in the course of heading back to the urinals. After more than one soldier had their face stepped on in the dark or worse should a buddy miss the urinal, the forward urinals were reinstalled.

Final Trip West, 11 – 15 Apr: Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was to be the last rehearsal. Departing Pope AFB on the evening of 11 Apr, I flew with a mixed, augmented crew to Norton AFB, CA. We arrived at the usual o’ dark thirty and went into crew rest at a local Holiday Inn. With the sun coming up, most of us started our crew rest around the pool. We splashed around a bit and laughed at the very brave, MSgt Bubba Almanzar, a non-swimmer, going off the high dive. As the sun rose higher into the sky, like the creatures of the night that we were, we went to bed. We weren’t supposed to fly until the next night but Col Kyle called me in the late afternoon and told me to round up the troops, get back out to Norton, and call him on the secure phone from the command post. He did tell me that we were flying to Laguna AAF in the beautiful Yuma Proving Grounds—the YPG as we called it. It was also where the Marine Corps and Navy helicopter crews were sequestered.

The unplanned “bag drag” was easier said than done. One SMSgt was unable to make it to the crew bus in time, so we decided to press on and get him later. While talking to Col Kyle on the “fuzzy” phone at the Norton Command Post (CP), I overheard the CP NCO tell the Duty Officer that he had an irate senior NCO at the Holiday Inn requesting a crew bus. The NCO also said that crew transport had already sent a bus to that location, but this guy had missed the bus. I respectfully intervened and asked the captain to please send another bus since that man was vital to the success of our mission. I offered some lame excuse why he missed the original bus. I guess the captain figured we were up to something special because he sent the bus. That future CMSgt and I laughed about that incident until the day he died. Back on the phone with Col Kyle again, he said the reason for the hurry-up call was the need to do a live Fulton recovery rehearsal the next night. The “package” for the Fulton recovery was supposed to be the combat controller, Maj John Carney. A finer man and warrior you will never find. (Editor’s Note: John “Coach” Carney was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame in 1995 and the USSOCOM Hall of Honor in 2011) We didn’t know that John was making a trip into Iran to set up the landing lights at Desert One.

We landed at Laguna AAF at about 2400 and were initially taken to the helicopter crews’ assembly room which, I think, was on the bottom floor of their quarters. The first thing that I saw was one big Marine pilot throwing an equally big Marine pilot over the pool table. It made me wonder how long had these boys been away from civilization? The biggest Marine, Barney Oldfield, said that the head Air Force guy, me, would have to arm-wrestle him if we wanted rooms in their “home.” I sure didn’t see that coming. Somehow I talked my way out of that one, but I think having a lone Air Force pilot, Capt Russ “Rotor” Rakip, among the group of helicopter pilots helped a bunch. We finally all got bedded down and I shared a room with Rotor.
The Fulton rehearsal did not go well. Poor John Carney had to sweat in the dark under the Fulton pick-up balloon for a long time as we orbited and tried to get a balky recovery winch to stop bleeding hydraulic fluid. We could not fix the winch and finally had to scrub the recovery.

The next night we did the Night One landing rehearsal with my crew in a Talon leading Capt Russ Tharp, in an EC-130 refueler to a landing on Edwards AFB’s dry lake bed runway. The route was not too long, but Russ’ crew got a bit out of position while turning inbound to the landing area. After I landed, Tharp let us know he was having some trouble picking up the landing area. I pointed my aircraft down final with landing lights on and directed him to fly to the left of a very well lit shuttle gantry on final. He found the landing zone and landed just a few minutes later than scheduled. We all noted that the dust was not a problem as we refueled the helicopters.

The Mission is a Go: Shortly after returning to Hurlburt from the desert landing rehearsal, all the crews were gathered together and told that the mission was a “Go.” We were ecstatic. Col Tom Wicker, 1st SOW mission commander and our group commander, set up the crew order for the mission. Although we had done the Night One rehearsal, my crew was not scheduled for the Night One insertion. We would be the only Talon crew left at Wadi Kena in Egypt. But, since we had done so much helicopter ground refueling, our loadmasters, TSgt Dave Chesser and SSgt Ron Thomas, were put on Tharp’s EC-130 tanker crew for Night One. They would rejoin us at Wadi Kena for Night Two when we would have the honor of leading Night Two with the Task Force Commander, Maj Gen Vaught on board—first in and last out. This plan made perfect sense to me, but my crew and I still felt like we were missing out on part of the greatest experience of our military lives.

Departure: On 18 Apr, I flew a functional check flight (FCF) on my mission aircraft (#64-0572) just a few hours before our mass departure briefing. I did a complete FCF, to include shutdown and restart of all four engines, using both the fire handle (T-handle) and the engine condition lever. For the first time in my extensive history of doing FCFs, one of the engines would not shut down using one of the methods. We tried several times, but without any luck. The maintenance chief grounded the aircraft and I went to the mission briefing. The maintainers immediately got to work on the aircraft and another pilot flew a successful FCF. We had a good aircraft by the next day.

We were the last of the seven MC/EC mission aircraft to depart Hurlburt the night of 20 Apr. After 15.7 hours and a night refueling in bad weather over the North Atlantic, 64-0572 landed late in the evening of 21 Apr at Rhein-Main AB, Germany, ostensibly to participate in EUCOM’s Flintlock exercise, just as our orders read.

The next night we flew to Sigonella AB, Sicily where we were met by my good friend, Maj Dave Blum from the 7th SOS. I just wanted a good flight plan to “Alpha,” as we called Wadi Kena before we knew its name, without talking to anybody over the Med. We departed Sigonella AB and figured if we flew down the flight information region boundaries, the airspace boundaries between countries, and did not talk to anybody, we would be golden. As 7th SOS MC-130s had been flying from Rhein-Main AB to Wadi Kena for months on routine “training missions” and an exercise with the Egyptians to establish a presence, we did not cause any notice.

Approaching the Egyptian coast, we had an engine problem and had to shut it down. We landed before dawn, the last mission aircraft to land at Wadi Kena. We ate breakfast at the chow hall on the southern end of the airfield where the vast majority of the support and tanker force were housed. The JTF Command Center, Rangers, AC-130 Spectre crews, and my crew were housed in bunkered hangars at the north end of the runway, near our aircraft. The other 1st SOW Night One crews had already departed for Masirah Island. Therefore, my crew and General Vaught’s radioman were the sole occupants.

Combat Talon Pterodactyl

“Combat Talon Pterodactyl” by Diane Dillon, donated to USAF Art Collection in 1978 as catalog number 1978.032, “Blackbird - C130”.

Wadi Kena: We landed at Wadi Kena about three hours after Bob Brenci’s crew departed flying a 1st SOS Talon (#64-0565). Lewis, Tharp, and Uttaro in their EC-130s had departed earlier. Since the other three Night Two crews would not return to Wadi Kena until just prior to launch, we spent most of our few waking hours refining the Night Two plan and making sure the three 8th SOS MC-130s were in good flying shape. The fourth Night Two Talon would be a 1st SOS aircraft flown back to Wadi Kena from Masirah. Pilots Jerry Thigpen and Charlie Williamson configured the Night Two aircraft, Combat Talons #64-0562, #64-0567, and #64-0572 with IR lenses on the landing lights and covers on the rotating beacons—try that without a cherry picker in 100 degree heat. Flight engineer Tom Daigneault pre-flighted the aircraft and coordinated the maintenance action required for the next night’s launch. Navigators Jack Launder and Joe McBride refined the low-level routes to Manzariyeh airfield, the Night Two landing site, and created mission folders for each crew. The electronic warfare officer, Capt Bill Robb, analyzed the route for threats and colored the maps appropriately. Our radio operator, TSgt John Mink, checked all aircraft radios and worked with the JTF communications element refining procedures. Since my primary loadmasters were with Russ Tharp’s crew for Night One and would not join us until shortly before the Night Two launch, SSgt Jim Chamness was added to my crew and ensured that all the cargo compartments were properly configured. Jerry Thigpen helped me prepare an in-depth briefing that covered all phases of the Night Two mission into the Manzariyeh airfield. Since the three Night One Talon crews would have little time between returning and launching for the Night Two mission, I planned to brief them immediately after their arrival back at Wadi Kena and provide them the mission folders containing essential mission details. There would be just enough time for questions before take-off. In addition to coordinating all the above, I worked with the Ranger commander on the ground operation/airfield seizure plan at Manzariyeh, an isolated airfield the former Shah of Iran had built to USAF standards for firepower demonstrations by his air force, about 50 miles west of Tehran. I even showed Capt Bubber Youngblood, the AC-130 pilot, where he could crash land his gunship on Manzariyeh after doing lethal damage in his target area.

Hammer Time: General Vaught’s call sign throughout training was “Hammer.” Either before or after (I forget which) the Night Two mission briefing, “Hammer” gave us a speech that was as impassioned than any I had ever heard—goose bumps and a desire to follow this man to Hell and back. I do remember one salient point that he “stressed” to the four Spectre crews and my Talon crew, there would be no in-flight aborts on this mission. He told us to do whatever was necessary, but we had to get to the objective area. We were not to leave anybody in Iran. No Herb Brooks’ Olympic hockey speech or Knute Rockne half-time speech could come close to Gen Vaught’s masterpiece.

25 April 1980: The AC-130s and Rangers left Wadi Kena quickly after mission cancellation. Our crew, the last to arrive at Wadi Kena, volunteered to be the last to leave. We did what we could for the Night One guys as they came through Wadi Kena. That night we stayed up and got the generators going so they had hot water in the shower tent.

Going Home: On 28 Apr, good to our word, Combat Talon #64-0572 departed Wadi Kena—last in, last out. We flew home through Sigonella AB, Rhein-Main AB, and Goose Bay, Labrador, arriving at Hurlburt Field on 2 May. And, yes, my crew felt that we would take this to our graves. Sadly, Ron Thomas, Jack Launder and Joe McBride have.
Out of the ashes of Desert One, though, arose the “Phoenix” of the most lethal and respected Special Operations Force in the world.

About the Author: Lt Col (Ret) Bob Meller was, at the time of Eagle Claw, 1 SOW Chief of MC-130 Stan/Eval. In 1977, while with 1SOS in Okinawa, he was project officer and first fully qualified C-130(MC-130E tail #64-0564) air refueling receiver pilot. He later was 23 AF/DOVA, 23AF OL-D Det 3/CC, 8SOS/DO during Desert Shield, and COMAFSOCCENT in Saudi Arabia. He had 6300 flight hours with over 4000 in the MC-130E Combat Talon I.

This article was first published Nov 2013 in the Air Commando Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4 page 24.

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