The Desert One Debacle

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.
Desert One, April 24, Late Evening

As the lead plane closed in on the landing site, its pilots noted curious milky patches in the night sky. They flew through one that appeared to be just haze, not even substantial enough to interfere with the downward-looking radar. They approached a second one as they got closer to the landing site. John Carney, who had come into the cockpit to be ready to activate the landing lights he had buried on his trip weeks earlier, was asked, “What do you make of that stuff out there?”

He looked through the co-pilot’s window and answered, “You’re in a haboob.”

The men in the cockpit laughed at the word.

“No, we’re flying through suspended dust,” Carney explained. “The Iranians call it a haboob.”

He had learned this from the CIA pilots who had flown him in earlier. Shifting air pressure sometimes forced especially fine desert sand straight up thousands of feet, where it hung like a vertical cloud for hours. It was just a desert curiosity, nothing that could cause a problem for the planes. But Air Force Colonel James H. Kyle, whose responsibility included all airborne aspects of the mission, knew that the haboob would be trouble for a helicopter. He had noticed that the temperature inside the plane went up significantly when they passed through the first haboob. He conferred with the plane’s crew, and suggested they break radio silence and call “Red Barn,” the command center at Wadi Kena, to warn the helicopter formation behind them. The chopper pilots might want to break formation or fly higher to avoid the stuff. It took the lead plane about thirty minutes to fly through this second patch, indicating that it extended about a hundred miles.

As the C-130 approached the landing area, Carney activated his runway lights, but just then the plane’s newfangled FLIR (forward-looking infrared radar) detected something moving, which proved to be a truck hurtling along the dirt road that ran through the landing site. The pilots passed over the spot and then circled back around. On the second pass the stretch of desert was clear. They circled around for the third time and touched down—Logan Fitch, a tall Texan and one of Delta’s squadron leaders, was amazed by how smoothly. The plane coasted to a stop, and when the back ramp was lowered, the Rangers roared off in the Jeep and on a motorcycle to give chase to the truck. Word that an American plane had landed in the desert, relayed promptly to the right people, could defeat the whole effort.

The hard-packed surface of three weeks prior was now coated with a layer of sand the consistency of baby powder—ankle-deep in some places—that accounted for the extraordinary softness of their landing. This fine sand made it more difficult to taxi the plane, and the backwash from the propellers kicked up a serious dust storm.

Fitch followed with his men, walking down the ramp and stepping into a cauldron of noise and dust. His team had nothing to do at Desert One except wait to offload camouflage netting and other equipment from the second C-130 when it arrived, then board helicopters for the short trip to the hiding places. The big plane’s propellers were still roaring and kicking up sand. Shielding his eyes with an upraised arm, Fitch turned to his right and was shocked to see, coming straight toward him, a bus! Literally out of nowhere. The odds that the plane would encounter one vehicle at midnight on such an isolated desert road were vanishingly small, but there it was, honoring an absolute law of military operations: the inevitability of the unexpected. This second vehicle was a big Mercedes passenger bus, piled high with luggage, lit up like midday inside, and filled with more than forty astonished Iranian passengers.

Suddenly the night desert flashed as bright as daylight and shook with an explosion. In the near distance, a giant ball of flame rose high into the darkness. One of the Rangers had fired an anti-tank weapon at the fleeing truck, which turned out to have been loaded with fuel. It burned like a miniature sun. So much for slipping quietly into Iran. This clandestine rendezvous spot, this patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, was lit up like a Friday-night football game in Texas. The men with night-vision goggles removed them. At least one of the truck’s occupants had bailed out, climbed into a trailing pickup truck (three vehicles!), and escaped at high speed. A Ranger gave chase on the motorcycle but couldn’t catch up.

In this sudden glow the bus now rolled to a stop with a leaking radiator and a flat right-front tire. Rangers had fired their weapons to disable it. Fitch, still confused, sent Delta machine-gun teams to both sides of the stalled, steaming vehicle, and led a group of his men to the front. Some Rangers were already aboard.

Fitch mounted the steps and asked a Ranger sergeant, “What the hell is going on?”

“I’m trying to get these people off the bus, but they won’t move,” the sergeant said. The passengers were clearly bewildered. “Should I fire a shot over their heads?” he asked.

“No,” Fitch said. “Why don’t you just get off the bus, and I’ll get my people in here.”

One of Delta’s specialties was handling hostages—herding them, searching them, securing them. In the next few minutes, Fitch’s men firmly and efficiently emptied the bus and searched the passengers for weapons. They then stripped the baggage off the top of the bus and searched it, finding no weapons. The passengers appeared to be poor Iranians, simply traveling through the night from Yazd to Tabas. The bus was decorated with placards and posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. It had rolled into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The question of what to do with the passengers was relayed all the way to the White House. The president and his staff were deliberately going through the late-afternoon motions of a typical workday but secretly hanging on every update from the desert.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national-security adviser, relayed the unexpected problem of the bus to the president, and Carter agreed that the only thing to do was to fly all the Iranians out that night on one of the C-130s and then return them to Iran when the mission was complete.

Shortly after midnight things grew louder and busier as the second C-130 roared in for a landing, right on schedule, and taxied to a stop. Behind it were the three fuel tankers and the communications plane. As Burruss and his men came down the lowered ramp of their plane, they gaped at the ball of flame, the bus, and the passengers sitting on the sand.

“Welcome to World War Three!” Fitch greeted them.

Desert One was now looking more like an airport, and Carney’s men were busy directing traffic, preparing for the arrival of the helicopters. Within the hour, all three C-130 bladder planes were positioned and parked, along with the communications plane. The first two C-130s would return to Masirah before the arrival of the helicopters, clearing space at the landing site.

The unloading had gone pretty much as planned, with one exception: the second C-130 had landed a few thousand feet farther away from the landing zone than expected, so the job of transferring the camouflage netting from it to the choppers was correspondingly bigger. The netting would be draped over the helicopters at their hiding places at daylight. It was not an especially warm night in the desert, but all the men were overdressed in layers of clothing, and they were sweating heavily with exertion. Moving through the loose sand made the task even more difficult. The Air Force crews struggled to unfurl hundreds of pounds of hoses from the parked tankers, for fueling the choppers. The bus would have to be moved, so all the passengers were herded back on.

“What is the status of the choppers?” Beckwith asked over a secure satellite radio.

The command station at Wadi Kena responded by relaying a request from the lead chopper for conditions at Desert One.

“Visibility five miles with negative surface winds,” reported Colonel Kyle, who was with Beckwith.

Then they heard from the lead chopper, which had a secure satellite radio similar to Beckwith’s at Desert One: “Fifty minutes out and low on fuel.”

The fuel crews were poised. They were capable of working like pit crews at the Indy 500. It would take only ten minutes to refill a landed chopper and send it on its way, but everything was behind schedule, which meant that even if the refueling and loading were done perfectly, the choppers would not get to their hiding places before dawn. That posed only a small risk, as the sites were in mountains outside the city, the choppers had been painted the same colors as the Iranian army’s helicopters, and it would still be fairly dark when they arrived. Still, if they didn’t land at Desert One soon, they would be getting to their hiding places in broad daylight.

There was nothing to do but wait. Most of the force had been on the ground for more than two hours. Stirred by the idling aircraft, sand whipped around the men, stinging their faces and making it difficult to see. The choppers were late and getting later. But they had been late in every one of the rehearsals, so no one was surprised.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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