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Operation Eagle Claw
The abortive attempt to free the 53 hostages held in Tehran, Iran ranks as one of the noblest ventures conducted by special operations forces.
On November 4, 1979, three thousand Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The students seized the compound, capturing 66 Americans. On November 17th, the militants released thirteen hostages. For the remainder of the crisis, the militants held 52 American hostages. When five months of diplomatic negotiations failed to gain the release of the hostages, President Carter issued an executive order for a military rescue mission. The rescue mission, code named Eagle Claw, ended with catastrophic results. The mission was aborted in the first staging/refueling area known as Desert One with the deaths of eight servicemen.
A combination of a helicopter supported force with additional C-130 transport aircraft was deemed the best option for a clandestine insertion. The helicopters selected for the mission would be the RH-53D Navy minesweeper. The difficulty with the helicopters was the range restrictions; a refueling point would have to be planned along the route. Aerial refueling was not an option at this time, so ground refueling from an EC-130 aircraft would have to be planned. A remote site that was flat enough to land the aircraft and perform fueling operations was found some 265 miles south of Tehran; it was code named Desert One.
Abort criteria for the helicopters was a difficult tactical planning consideration. Based on the number of personnel in the assault force, the abort criteria was set at seven aircraft crossing the Iranian coastline, six aircraft taking-off from Desert One, and five aircraft providing lift for the assault. The hostages and the assault force could be lifted with four aircraft.
At 1905 hours local, the eight RH-53Ds launched from the U.S.S. Nimitz positioned fifty-eight miles south of the Iranian coastline. The helicopters proceeded on the first leg of the mission for refueling and link-up operations in landing zone Desert One. This first leg was a 600 nautical mile flight. The low-level flight profile was 100 feet above the ground level (AGL) and at 120 knots of air speed. The crews used full-face, first generation night vision goggles to assist with the navigation of the route. The Air Force component, the C-130 transport package took off with the assault force from Masirah Island, Oman approximately ten minutes after the helicopters. The C-130 mission package consisted of three MC-130s transporting the assault force. In addition, there were three EC-130 refuelers responsible for the ground refueling operations.
Independently staggering out of two unexpected dust storms, six helicopters arrived at Desert One ranging from 50 to 85 minutes late. The refueling evolution began immediately. At this point, there was still sufficient time to reach the next zone under the cover of darkness. Helicopter #2 experienced a second stage hydraulic failure and was declared unfit for flight by the crew. Although the results of the mission were tragic, Operation Eagle Claw’s contribution to the American military was invaluable. The lessons learned from the mission illustrated serious deficiencies in the capability of the American military. The mission forced the political and military leadership to address these inadequacies and initiate changes. Military reform would be complete and revolutionary. This scene depicts the crucial time when momentous decisions were on the shoulders of the Delta Force commander. The assault force had been compromised by a bus full of Iranians, held in check by the Ranger security element. The Marine pilots are flying the helicopters being refueled from the Air Force tanker aircraft, the blades on each still turning causing both a deafening roar of engines and blasts of rotor wash. A fuel truck that drove into Desert One had been fired on by the security element. The subsequent explosion illuminated the night sky, punctuating the deliberate decisions then being made and bathing the Desert One site in a ruddy glow. Air Force Combat Controllers work feverishly amid the cacophony to maneuver the aircraft into place. Col Beckwith is depicted communicating to the Joint Task force headquarters, informing them of the critical situation on the ground. The abort threshold had been passed; the number of operational helicopters would not permit successful mission completion. As this weighed heavily on the leadership, every instinct drove the Delta Force to achieve the impossible with fewer than required assets. The mission abort criteria could not be alleviated; to continue would endanger not only their lives but those of the captives. "The Guts to Try" captures the drama of the singular most historic event in special operations history.