This day in CCT History: 24 Apr 1980 Desert One Iranian Rescue Mission
24 April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent a military mission into Iran to rescue fifty-three Americans held hostage in Tehran. Years of neglect hampered the mission at all turns. An elite US Army organization was exclusively tasked to carry out the mission instead of a Joint Task Force. It quickly became apparent that other forces would be needed. Security concerns were not well planned with several elements training in isolation. Two separate CCT units were preparing for the mission, each unaware of the other. Fixed and rotary wing aircraft were trained separately. The strike element and the support element did not mesh. Each service jockeyed for a piece of the mission at the expense of the other.
Sergeant Rex Wollmann, Hurlburt CCT, was tasked to provide administrative ATC and technical expertise to the local MC-130 squadron while they conducted classified training. The Hurlburt CCT commander was deemed by command authorities not to have "a need to know." The MC-130s and a select group of US Army Rangers were developing heretofore-untested theories and procedures for blacked-out landings and rapid airfield seizures. Sgt Wollmann was not originally part of the planned mission but when rehearsals drew to a close, he was deemed too essential not to be incorporated in the actual operation.
On the other side of the United States, Major John Carney was maneuvering his Charleston CCT into position and onto the mission. The Army did not want anyone accompanying their assaulters into the hit site. However, Carney knew the Army did not have the expertise to work the landing sites or the refueling points that would be necessary to refuel the Task Force's helicopters. Additionally, a landing zone assessment would have to be accomplished on a remote patch of desert, deep inside Iran. Fortunately, the Joint Task Force (JTF) commander saw the wisdom of including Major Carney and his team.
Under the cover of darkness, a CIA Twin Otter flew Major Carney into the proposed LZ. Major Carney conducted the assault zone survey on a mini bike, collecting soil, checking surface conditions, and burying remote control runway lights.
Three MC-130s, three EC-130s, and eight helicopters, departed their forward operating base in Masirah, Oman undercover of darkness. The lead MC-130 carrying CCT and the Rangers touched down safely and taxied into the prebriefed position just the way it had been rehearsed a hundred times. Everything was going as planned. CCT quickly cleared and marked two parallel runways, set up a portable TACAN, and prepared to accept the first of the follow-on aircraft for landing. Things would get very busy when the eight helicopters landed and began to refuel.
Dust and mechanical problems plagued the Marine helicopters from the beginning of the mission. Only six of the eight original helicopters ever made it to "Desert One." The mission commander felt confident that the rescue could be accomplished with only six healthy helicopters. As final takeoff preparations were being completed, a radio call came across the net that would end months of work and training. Another helicopter was broken and could not be safely flown. This meant that unless operators were cut from the follow-on mission, the entire rescue operation would have to be cancelled. The Army could not perform its mission without the full complement of soldiers. The abort had to be given. Major Carney was given the word to get the aircraft off the ground and to police up the TACAN and all of the runway lights.
One of the helicopters required refueling before it could return to the U.S.S. Nimitz. This meant repositioning the lead helicopter. As the chopper began to taxi clear of the area, it became engulfed in dust. Without warning, it veered right and smashed into the parked EC-130, setting itself and the airplane on fire. The fireball could be seen for miles. One enormous flame was incinerating all things within its reach, including the hopes of rescue for the American hostages. Dejected men and machines departed the lonely Iranian airstrip that was to have been the key to a daring special operations mission.
Despite all of the confusion, the Combat Controllers remained calm and continued with the mission. They taxied the remaining aircraft around the smoldering wreckage and then cleared them for takeoff. After thoroughly searching the area for survivors, CCT boarded the last plane out of the LZ.
Five Airman and three Marine aviators died that night. The overall mission itself was a total failure. However, something positive often comes from terrible disasters, and "Desert One" was no exception. The national leadership realized that a special group of dedicated professionals would be needed to handle similar operations in the future. Thus, it was the driving force behind the formation of US Special Operations Command, AFSOC and other units. Major "Coach" Carney continued to lead and is known as the father of special tactics.