Losses and Aviation Safety

Delta Force Operator aboard the EC-130E hit by the RH-53 during Operation Eagle Claw remembers the disaster the plagued the ill-fated bid to end the Iran hostage crisis

‘Then “bang” I heard a noise from the front port side. The helicopter first hit our vertical stabilizer, then the propellers of engine number 1 and 2, and came to rest adjacent to the cockpit on the left side, with helicopter’s cockpit sitting on top of the EC-130E,’ Delta Operator Staff Sergeant Mike R. Vining.

Operation Eagle Claw, was a US Armed Forces operation ordered by US President Jimmy Carter to attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis by rescuing 52 embassy staff held captive at the Embassy of the United States, Tehran on Apr. 24, 1980.

In the weeks before the mission, USAF combat controllers covertly deployed into Iran to prepare the landing site at Desert One (a remote spot 200 miles southeast of Tehran).

The operation, one of Delta Force’s first saw the participation of the unit’s founder, Colonel Charlie Beckwith.

The mission began when the first MC-130, carrying the mission commander and USAF combat controllers, arrived at Desert One. The combat controllers were tasked with establishing the airstrips and marshalling the aircraft once they had landed. Soon after the first MC-130 arrived, the plan began to fall apart. First, a passenger bus approached on a highway bisecting the landing zone. The advance party was forced to stop the vehicle and detain its 45 passengers. Soon, a fuel truck came down the highway. When it failed to stop, the Americans fired a light anti-tank weapon which set the tanker on fire and lit the surrounding area. Finally, a pickup truck approached but turned around and departed the area. The assault team commanders, however, decided to continue with the mission. Soon the other five MC-130s aircraft arrived at Desert One to wait for the helicopters. The RH-53 helicopters departed the Nimitz and were en route to Desert One. During the flight, two helicopters aborted because of flight instrument and mechanical problems while the pilot of a third helicopter decided to continue on to Desert One despite hydraulic problems. Soon the remaining six helicopters encountered an unexpected severe dust storm and proceeded individually to Desert One, arriving nearly an hour behind schedule.

Six US Navy Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters of helicopter mine countermeasures squadron HM-16 Sea Hawks in flight in the vicinity of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in preparation of “Operation Evening Light” (Eagle Claw), in the Persian Gulf in Apirl 1980. 

Once at Desert One, the RH-53 with hydraulic problems could not be repaired, which left the team with one less helicopter than was required to carry the assault team and hostages. With just five helicopters available, the on-scene commander aborted the mission. The plan then shifted to getting the assault team back on the MC-130s while the helicopters refueled and returned to the Nimitz. At that point, tragedy struck. One of the helicopter’s rotor blades inadvertently collided with a fuel-laden EC-130. Both aircraft exploded, killing five airmen on the EC-130 and three marines on the RH-53. 

Delta Operator Staff Sergeant Mike R. Vining recalls in Justin Williamson’s book Operation Eagle Claw 1980:

‘Then “bang” I heard a noise from the front port side. The helicopter first hit our vertical stabilizer, then the propellers of engine number 1 and 2, and came to rest adjacent to the cockpit on the left side, with helicopter’s cockpit sitting on top of the EC-130E. To those watching, we had completely disappeared in a fireball. Flames reached 300ft and more into the air. The helicopter’s internal auxiliary tank ruptured and had ignited. I looked towards the cockpit and saw flames near the upper part of the cockpit (the helicopter blade tore through the top of the aircraft). The left front galley door blew in. In an instant the cockpit was filled with flames and flames were shooting along the ceiling. The force of the fireball forced the galley door down onto the flight deck. Chris Abel stood up and said, “Haul ass” and then fell down. The aircraft had 33 of our team members on it with an aircraft crew of eight. I saw what appeared to be a person moving around in the cockpit area. This area was full of flames. I looked to the rear and saw people were trying to open the port rear paratrooper door. Sergeant James W. McClain Jr., the loadmaster, opened the port rear paratrooper door, but there was nothing but flames coming in, so he closed it with the help of Major Logan B. Fitch, the White Element commander and the commander of B Squadron. I thought, “Oh, God, is it going to end like this.” Major Fitch ordered the loadmaster to open the ramp, but the ramp area was also in flames.

Operation Eagle Claw Desert One layout.

‘After several attempts the rear starboard door was open. It became crowded with people. Airman First Class Hyram L. Walton went through the door and was knocked down by other people, so he rolled under the aircraft. When the rear starboard door was opened the flames inside increased (due to the draft it created). Flames were spreading from the ceiling and down the sides of the interior. I thought about getting my weapon and equipment. People were moving rearward and the fire was increasing. Technical Sergeant Kenneth L. “Ken” Bancroft helped a man who had been knocked down in the rush for the door. So there wasn’t time to grab any of my equipment or my weapon. I could hear someone (probably Sergeant Major Chaney) yell “Don’t panic!” – this was repeated by other people and it seemed to work. I moved directly to the open door and I was close to being the last one out. Fitch and Chaney had figured that not everyone would make it and it was time for them to get out. When I went out, I dove out headfirst.

‘There was nothing but a wall of flames in the doorway. The propellers were still turning at full throttle – this fed the fire and caused an envelope of flames to surround the aircraft’s fuselage, and hot metal was flying through the air. I fell six feet to the ground and rolled, my hand hit a piece of metal and it burned my fingers. I saw people’s feet going by me. I got to my feet and I could hear the sound of small arms cooking off inside the aircraft. I ran and I could hear explosions coming from inside of the aircraft from the 40mm HE, M67 fragmentation grenades, and M72 LAWs. I didn’t know what to do. Staff Sergeant Joseph J. “Joe” Byers III, a radio operator behind the cockpit of the EC-130E and the third pilot were the only two from the flight deck to escape. They escaped down the flight of stairs from the cockpit, crawling across the fuel bladder on hands and knees. They made it to the door and jumped out.

Burned RH-53 helicopter in Operation Eagle Claw.

‘Thirty-eight personnel escaped the crash: two Marine pilots, three Airmen, and 33 from Delta. I saw one of the Redeye missiles we had onboard shoot through the aircraft’s nose and fly out into the desert. The fuel bladder finally ignited and a huge pillar of flame shot skyward in a loud explosion that buckled the aircraft. I saw people going to another EC-130E, so I went too. The people on the aircraft were waving us away (I guess they were full). Later I learned they were trying to get away from the inferno. I ran to another EC-130E, which was parked next to our exploding EC-130E.’

The team commanders ordered the remaining helicopters abandoned and everyone to board the EC-130s, which soon departed for Masirah Island.

With that, Operation Eagle Claw came to an end. President Carter was notified of the mission’s failure, and the wreckage at Desert One was broadcast to the world by the Iranian government. In the remaining months of his presidency President Carter continued to work toward the hostages’ release, although the government of Iran did not do so until the day of President Ronald W. Reagan‘s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981.

Eagle Claw 1980 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

 A photo of the “Desert One” landing site. On Apr. 24, 1980 a U.S. Navy Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallion (BuNo 158760, visible at right) collided with a U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-130E Hercules (s/n 62-1809, wrecked in the foreground) during refueling after the mission was aborted. Both aircraft were destroyed, eight crewmen died. In the background is one of the five intact, but abandoned RH-53Ds.

Photo credit: U.S. DoD

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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