Operation Eagle Claw
Operation Eagle Claw (or Operation Evening Light or Operation Rice Bowl) was an American military operation ordered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter to attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis by rescuing 52 Americans held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on 24 April 1980. Its failure, and the humiliating public debacle that ensued, damaged American prestige worldwide. Carter and many experts concluded that the failure to free the hostages played a major role in Reagan's victory in the 1980 U.S. presidential election.
The operation encountered many obstacles and was eventually aborted. Eight helicopters were sent to the first staging area, Desert One, but only five arrived in operational condition. One encountered hydraulic problems, another got caught in a cloud of very fine sand, and the last one showed signs of a cracked rotor blade. During planning it was decided that the mission would be aborted if fewer than six helicopters remained, despite only four being absolutely necessary. The commanders asked President Carter for permission to abort. In a move that is still discussed in military circles, Carter granted the request.
As the U.S. force prepared to leave, one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight servicemen. Operation Eagle Claw was one of Delta Force's first missions.
Planning and preparation 
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Preparing for the operation 
The Joint Task Force commander was Army Major General James B. Vaught, while the fixed-wing and air mission commander was Colonel James H. Kyle, the helicopter commander was Marine Lieutenant Colonel Edward R. Seiffert, and the Delta Force commander was Colonel Charlie Beckwith. For this operation, the aircrafts bore special black-red-black identification stripes on their right wings.
The Tehran CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary team, led by retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer Richard J. Meadows, had two assignments: to obtain information about the hostages and the embassy grounds, and to transport the rescuers from Desert Two to the embassy grounds in pre-staged vehicles. In reality, the most important information came from an embassy cook released by the Iranians. He was discovered on a flight from Tehran at the last minute by another CIA officer, and confirmed that the hostages were centrally located in the embassy compound – this was a key piece of information long sought by the planners.
On 1 April, three weeks before the operation, a U.S. Air Force Combat Controller, Major John T. Carney Jr., was flown in a Twin Otter to Desert One by two CIA officers for a clandestine survey of an airstrip. Despite their casual approach to the mission, Carney successfully surveyed the airstrip, installed remotely operated infrared lights and a strobe to outline a landing pattern for pilots, and took soil samples to determine the load-bearing properties of the desert surface. At that time, the floor was hard-packed sand, but in the ensuing three weeks, an ankle-deep layer of powdery sand was deposited by sandstorms.
Finalized plan 
The operation was designed as a complex two-night mission.
The first stage was to establish Desert One, a staging area in the South Khorasan Province of Iran, near Tabas. First, approximately 6,000 gallons of jet fuel would be brought to the area in collapsible bladders by three MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft. Next, eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters would arrive from the USS Nimitz. Protection for this stage was to be provided by Carrier Air Wings 8 and 14 which were operating from the USS Coral Sea. The MC-130s would be piloted by the Air Force while the RH-53Ds would be operated by the Marines.
Next, the collapsible bladders would be used to refuel the helicopters. Afterwards the RH-53Ds would fly the Delta Force soldiers to Desert Two, a site just outside of Tehran. Since it would be close to morning, the helicopters and ground forces would hide during the day at Site Two.
The second night would involve the actual rescue operation. First, CIA agents that were already inside Iran would bring trucks to Desert Two. Together, the CIA agents and ground forces would then drive from Desert Two into Tehran. While the main assault force was moving to Tehran, other US troops would perform other actions. Some would disable electrical power to the area, hopefully slowing any response from the Iranian military. In addition, AC-130 gunships would be deployed to the airspace over Tehran to provide any necessary supporting fire. Lastly, Army Rangers would capture the nearby Manzariyeh Air Base ( ) so that several C-141 Starlifters could arrive.
Once everything was prepared, the ground troops would assault the US Embassy and eliminate the guards. Afterwards the hostages and troops would rendezvous with the RH-53D helicopters across the street at the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium. Lastly, the helicopters would bring everyone to the Manzariyeh Air Base, where the C-141s could fly everyone back to friendly territory.
Execution of the mission 
Only the delivery of the rescue team, equipment and fuel by the MC-130E Combat Talons (call signs Dragon 1 to 3) and EC-130Es (Republic 4 to 6), all flown by Combat Talon crews, went according to plan. The special operations transports took off from their staging base at Masirah Island near Oman and were refueled in-flight by KC-135 tankers just off of Iran's coast.
Dragon 1 landed at 22:45 local time after the hidden lights were activated. The landing was made under blacked-out conditions using the same improvised infrared landing light system as that installed by Carney on the airstrip, visible only through night vision goggles. The heavily loaded Dragon 1 required four passes to determine that there were no obstructions on the airstrip and that it could squeeze into its small confines. The landing resulted in substantial wing damage to the Talon that later required it be rebuilt "from the ground up", but no one was hurt and it remained flyable. Dragon 1 off-loaded Kyle, a U.S.A.F. Combat Control team led by Carney and Beckwith.
The Combat Control team consisted of 120 Delta operators, 12 Rangers of a roadblock team, and 15 Iranian and American Persian-speakers, most of whom would act as truck drivers. The Combat Controllers immediately established a parallel landing zone north of the dirt road and set out TACAN beacons to guide the helicopters. The second and third MC-130s landed and discharged the remainder of the Delta operators, after which Dragon 1 and 2 took off at 23:15 to make room for the EC-130s and the eight RH-53D Sea Stallion aircraft (Bluebeard 1 to 8).
Bluebeard 6 was grounded and abandoned in the desert when its pilots interpreted a sensor indication as a cracked rotor blade. Its crew was picked up by Bluebeard 8. Then, the remaining helicopters ran into an unexpected weather phenomenon known as a haboob (fine particles of sand suspended to a milky consistency in the air following dissipation of a thunderstorm). Bluebeard 5 flew into the haboob, but abandoned the mission and returned to the Nimitz when erratic flight control instrumentation made navigating without visual reference points impossible, just 25 minutes from clear air. The scattered formation reached Desert One, 50 to 90 minutes behind schedule. Bluebeard 2 arrived at Desert One with a malfunctioning second-stage hydraulics system (which powers the number-one automatic flight control system and a portion of the primary flight controls) leaving one hydraulics system to control the aircraft. (Bluebeards 2 and 8, which were later abandoned, now serve with the Iranian Navy.)
Soon after the first crews landed and began securing Desert One, a tanker truck apparently smuggling fuel was blown up nearby by a shoulder-fired rocket as it tried to escape the site. The truck's passenger was killed, but the driver managed to escape in an accompanying pickup truck; when the tanker truck was evaluated to be engaged in clandestine smuggling, the driver was not considered to pose a security threat to the mission. The resulting fire illuminated the nighttime landscape for many miles around, and actually provided a visual guide to Desert One for the disoriented and dehydrated incoming helicopter crews. A civilian Iranian bus with a driver and 43 passengers traveling on the same road, which served as the runway for the aircraft, was forced to halt at approximately the same time and detained aboard Republic 3[clarification needed].
With only five Sea Stallions remaining to transport the men and equipment to Desert Two, which Beckwith considered was the mission's abort threshold, the various commanders reached a stalemate. Helicopter commander Seiffert refused to use Bluebeard 2 on the mission, while Beckwith refused to reduce his rescue team's size. Beckwith failed to incorporate intelligence from a Canadian diplomatic source into a "bump plan"[clarification needed]; additionally, he anticipated losing additional helicopters at later stages, especially as they were notorious for failing on cold starts and they were to be shut down for almost 24 hours at Desert Two. Kyle recommended to Vaught that the mission be aborted. The recommendation was passed on by satellite radio up to the President. After two and a half hours on the ground, the abort order was received.
Fuel consumption calculations showed that the extra 90 minutes idling on the ground had made fuel critical for one of the EC-130s. When it became clear that only six helicopters would arrive at Desert One, Kyle had authorized the EC-130s to transfer 1,000 U.S. gallons from the bladders to their own main fuel tanks, but Republic 4 had already expended all of its bladder fuel refueling three of the helicopters and had none to transfer. To make it to the tanker refueling track without running out of fuel, it had to leave immediately, and was already loaded with part of the Delta team. In addition, RH-53 Bluebeard 4 needed additional fuel, requiring it be moved to the opposite side of the road.
To accomplish both actions, Sea Stallion Bluebeard 3 had to be moved from directly behind the EC-130. The aircraft couldn't be moved by ground taxi, and had to be moved by "hover taxi" (flying a short distance at low speed and altitude). A U.S.A.F. CCT marshaller attempted to direct the maneuver from in front of the aircraft, but was blasted by desert sand churned up by the rotor. As the marshaller attempted to back away, Bluebeard 3's pilot perceived he was drifting backward (engulfed in a dust cloud, the pilot only had the CCT marshaller as a point of reference) and thus attempted to "correct" this situation by applying forward stick in order to maintain the same distance from the rearward moving marshaller. The RH-53 struck the EC-130's vertical stabilizer with its main rotor and crashed into the EC-130's wing root.
In the ensuing explosion and fire, eight servicemen died: five U.S.A.F. aircrew in the C-130, and three U.S.M.C. aircrew in the RH-53, with only the helicopter pilot and co-pilot (both badly burned) surviving. The 5 US Airmen who died that night were Major Richard L. Bakke, Navigator; Major Harold L Lewis Jr., Pilot & Aircraft Commander; TSgt Joel C. Mayo, Flight Engineer; Major Lyn D. McIntosh, Co-Pilot; and Captain Charles T. McMillan, Navigator. They were very experienced Airmen, all of them between 28 and 35 years of age. The 3 US Marine casualties were Sgt John D. Harvey, Cpl George N. Holmes Jr., and SSgt Dewey L Johnson, the 3 of them were Marine Helicopter crewmen & riflemen. During the following frantic evacuation by the C-130s, the helicopter crews attempted to retrieve their classified mission documents and destroy the aircraft. The helicopter crews boarded the C-130s. Five RH-53 aircraft were left behind mostly intact, some damaged by shrapnel. The Iranians gained at least four of them.
The C-130s carried the remaining forces back to the intermediate airfield at Masirah Island, where two C-141 medical evacuation aircraft from the Night Two staging base at Wadi Abu Shihat, Egypt (referred to as Wadi Kena by the U.S. forces due to its location near Qena) picked up the injured personnel, helicopter crews, Rangers and Delta Force members, and returned to Wadi Kena. The injured were then transported to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Tehran CIA team left Iran, unaware of their compromised presence.
The White House announced the failed rescue operation at 1:00 AM the following day. The embassy hostages were subsequently scattered across Iran to make a second rescue attempt impossible. Iranian Army investigators found nine bodies, eight Americans and one Iranian civilian. 44 Iranian civilians were interviewed[clarification needed] and gave eyewitness accounts of the operation.
The various services' failure to cohesively work together eventually forced the establishment of a new multi-service organization several years later. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) became operational on 16 April 1987. Each service now has its own special operations forces under USSOCOM's overall control. For example, the Army has its own special operations command, which controls its special operations forces. The U.S.A.F. special operations units that supplied the rescue attempt's MC-130 elements were awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for both that year and the next, had the initial squadron of nine HH-53 Pave Low helicopters transferred from Military Airlift Command to its jurisdiction for long-range low-level night flying operations, and became co-hosts at its home base of Hurlburt Field with Air Force Special Operations Command.
The lack of well-trained Army helicopter pilots who were capable of the low-level night flying needed for modern special operations missions prompted the creation of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) (Night Stalkers). In addition to the 160th SOAR's creation, the U.S. Defense Department now trains many military helicopter pilots in low-level penetration, aerial refueling and use of night-vision goggles. H-47, H-53, H-60 and V-22 aircraft all include special operations capabilities and aerial refueling.
Planning for a second rescue mission was authorized under the name Project Honey Badger shortly after the first failed. Plans and exercises were conducted, but the manpower and aircraft requirements grew to involve nearly a battalion of troops, more than fifty aircraft, and such contingencies as transporting a 12-ton bulldozer to rapidly clear a blocked runway. Even though numerous rehearsal exercises were successful, the helicopters' failure during the first attempt resulted in development of a subsequent concept involving only fixed-wing STOL aircraft capable of flying from the U.S. to Iran using aerial refueling, then recovering[clarification needed] aboard an aircraft carrier for medical treatment of wounded.
The concept, called Operation Credible Sport, was developed but never implemented. It called for a modified Hercules, the YMC-130H, outfitted with rocket thrusters fore and aft to allow an extremely short landing and take-off in Amjadieh Stadium. Three aircraft were modified under a rushed secret program. The first fully modified aircraft crashed during a demonstration at Duke Field at Eglin Air Force Base on 29 October 1980, when its landing braking rockets were fired too soon. The misfire caused a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire. All on board survived without injury. The impending change of administration in the White House forced this project's abandonment.
Despite Credible Sport's failure, the Honey Badger exercises continued until after the 1980 U.S. presidential election, when they became moot. Even so, numerous special operations applications and techniques were developed which became part of the emerging USSOCOM repertoire.
President Carter continued to attempt to secure the hostages' release before his presidency's end. Despite extensive last-minute negotiations, he didn't succeed. On 20 January 1981, minutes after Carter's term ended, the 52 U.S. captives held in Iran were released, ending the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.
Retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L. Holloway III led the official investigation in 1980 into the causes of the operation's failure on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Holloway Report primarily cited deficiencies in mission planning, command and control, and inter-service operability, and provided a catalyst to reorganize the Department of Defense, and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.
Eight U.S. servicemembers died during the mission. The eight casualties were five U.S.A.F. airmen and three U.S. Marines: Airmen Major Richard L. Bakke, Major Harold L Lewis Jr., TSgt Joel C. Mayo, Major Lyn D. McIntosh, and Captain Charles T. McMillan. They were very experienced airmen, all of them between 28 and 35 years of age. The three Marine casualties were Sgt John D. Harvey, Cpl George N. Holmes Jr., and SSgt Dewey L Johnson. A memorial honoring the eight Americans who lost their lives during the rescue attempt is located in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Units involved in the operation 
Units known to have participated:
U.S. Air Force 
- 1st Special Operations Wing: 8th (EC-130), and 16th Special Operations Squadrons (AC-130)
- 18th Tactical Fighter Wing: 1st Special Operations Squadron (MC-130)
- SF-121 personnel involved (1 per aircraft) are still classified.
- RED HORSE units, and numerous support organizations
- 1st Combat Communications Squadron
U.S. Army 
- 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta ("Delta Force"), including Col. Charlie Beckwith, Maj. Peter Schoomaker, Maj. William G. Boykin, and MSG Eric L. Haney
- 75th Ranger Regiment
- Special Forces (United States Army) 39th Special Forces Detachment (Airborne)
- 235th Signal Detachment (TACSAT) (Wadi Qena)
- USS Nimitz (CVN-68) with Carrier Air Wing 8 and escorts (USS California (CGN-36), USS South Carolina (CGN-37), USS Texas (CGN-39) and USS Reeves (CG-24))
- USS Wichita (AOR-1)
- USS Coral Sea (CV-43) and escorts, USS William H. Standley (CG-32), USS Cook (FF-1083), USS Roanoke (AOR-7), with Carrier Air Wing 14
- USS Okinawa (LPH-3)
- USS St. Louis (LKA-116), USS San Bernardino (LST-1189) Amphibious Support.
- Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1)
- Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 16 (HM-16) aboard Nimitz
- Patrol Squadron 16 (VP-16)
See also 
- The Canadian Caper, the successful joint Canadian-CIA covert extraction operation of six fugitive American diplomats out of Iran.
- The Battle of Mogadishu
- Iranian fuel-truck driver
- "Jimmy Carter: Iran hostage rescue should have worked". USA Today. 17 September 2010.
- The Desert One Debacle
- Operation Eagle Claw, 1980: A Case Study In Crisis Management and Military Planning
- Gabriel, Richard A. (1985). Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win, Hill and Wang, ISBN 0-374-52137-9, pp. 106–116. Overall, the Holloway Commission blamed the ad hoc nature of the task force and an excessive degree of security, both of which intensified command-and-control problems.
- Bottoms, Mike (2007). "Carney receives Simons Award" (pdf). Tip of the Spear. United States Special Operations Command Public Affairs Office. pp. 26–31. Retrieved 11 November 2010. The "box four and one" pattern acted like a gun sight, with the distant fifth light at the end of the runway lined up in the center of the near four lights positioned at the approach end. The box provided a touchdown area and the far light marked the end of the rollout area.
- This was done by use of a Forward looking infrared (FLIR) pass before attempting to land.
- Bowden, Mark (2006). Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Battle In America's War With Militant Islam. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-925-1.
- It was originally planned to simulate a head-on accident between the tanker and the bus, flying the bus passengers out of Iran aboard Dragon 3 and then returning them to Manzaniyeh on the second night.
- Either because of a deflated nose gear tire, because of the layer of soft sand, or both. It had originally been positioned behind the EC-130 by a flight technique in which its nose gear was held off the ground while it rolled on its main gear.
- Trasportation, U.S. Department of (2012). Aeronautical Information Manual. U.S. Department of Trasportation: Federal Aviation Administration. p. 4-3-18.
- Thigpen 2001, p. 226
- James Bancroft. "The Hostage Rescue Attempt In Iran, 24–25 April 1980". Retrieved 11 November 2010.
- "Iran Hostage Crisis ends – History.com This Day in History – January 20, 1981". History.com. Retrieved 8 June 2010.
- "The Holloway Report" (PDF). Accessed 31 March 2007.
- The eight were: USAF members Majors Harold L. Lewis, Richard L. Bakke, and Lyn D. McIntosh, Captain Charles T. McMillan II, and Technical Sergeant Joel C. Mayo; and Marine Corps members Staff Sergeant Dewey L. Johnson, Sergeant John D. Harvey, and Corporal George N. Holmes, Jr.
- DD214 decorations/Sailor Present.
- DD214 Decorations/Sailor Present.
- Beckwith, Col. Charlie A., US Army (Ret.) (2000). Delta Force: The Army's Elite Counter Terrorist Unit. Avon. ISBN 0-380-80939-7.
- Bowden, Mark (May 2006). "The Desert One Debacle". The Atlantic Monthly.
- Bowden, Mark (2006). Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Battle In America's War With Militant Islam. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-925-1.
- Haney, Eric (2002). Inside Delta Force: The Story Of America's Elite Counter Terrorist Unit. Random House. ISBN 0-385-33603-9.
- Kamps, Charles (2006). "Operation Eagle Claw: The Iran Hostage Rescue Mission". Air & Space Power Journal. Unknown parameter
- Kyle, Col. James H., USAF (Ret.) (1990). The Guts to Try. New York: Orion Books. ISBN 0-517-57714-3.
- Lenahan, Rod (1998). Crippled Eagle: A Historical Perspective Of U.S. Special Operations 1976–1996. Narwhal Press. ISBN 1-886391-22-X.
- Olausson, Lars, Lockheed Hercules Production List 1954–2005, Såtenäs, Sweden, annually, no ISBN.
- "The Desert One Debacle" – The Atlantic, May 2006
- Modern Warfare: Special Operations, Operation Eagle Claw – The first part of a series of articles on Kuro5hin
- Pictorial overview
- Airman magazine – Interviews with surviving participants link is broken
- The Holloway Report – The official DoD investigation into the incident