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.
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Inside the Haboob, April 24, Midnight

Already, the Sea Stallions were down to six.

The original formation of eight had crossed into Iran flying at 200 feet and then moved down to 100 feet. Two of the choppers were having difficulty with their navigation equipment, but flying that close to the ground they could steer by using landmarks and by staying with the formation. They were not allowed to communicate over their non-secure radios, lest they be overheard by Iranian defenses, but they had practiced flashing lights as signals. They flew in a staggered line of four pairs. Not far inside Iran, the helicopter crews spotted part of the trailing formation of C-130s, which confirmed that the Sea Stallions were going the right way. Lieutenant Colonel Ed Seiffert, the flight leader and pilot of the first chopper, felt relaxed enough to take a break and have something to eat.

But the formation got only 140 miles into Iran before one of the choppers had trouble. In the cockpit of the sixth one in formation a warning light indicated that one of its blades had been hit by something or had cracked—a potentially fatal problem. That chopper immediately landed, followed by the one just behind it, and after determining that a rotor blade was in fact badly cracked, the pilots abandoned the damaged aircraft, removing all the classified documents inside, and climbed into chopper No. 8. It lifted off, gave chase, and eventually caught up with the others.

As they burned off fuel, the choppers picked up speed. They were closing in on Desert One. About 200 miles into Iran they saw before them what looked like a wall of whiteness: the first haboob. They flew right into it. Seiffert realized that it was suspended dust only when he tasted it and felt it in his teeth. If it was penetrating his cockpit, it was penetrating his engines. The temperature inside rose to 100 degrees. But then they were out of the cloud as suddenly as they had entered it. They had flown right through it.

Looming ahead was the second, much larger haboob, but Seiffert didn’t know that. No warning from the lead C-130 had been relayed; the need to maintain radio silence, and to communicate in code if it was broken, had ultimately led Kyle to decide against making a report.

So the chopper formation passed into the second cloud assuming that it was no bigger than the first. But the haboob grew thicker and thicker, until Seiffert could no longer see the other choppers or the ground. The helicopters had turned on their outside safety lights, and off in the haze indistinct halos of red were strung out at varying distances. When the fuzzy beacons also vanished, Seiffert and his wingman made a U-turn, flew back out of the cloud, and landed. None of the other five choppers had seen them land. Seiffert had hoped they would all follow him to the ground, where they could confer and decide on a strategy. Now he and his wingman had no choice but to take off and fly back into the soup, trying to catch up.

Major Jim Schaefer was now flying lead. One moment Seiffert’s aircraft had been in front of him, and the next it was gone. One by one the indistinct red blobs in the milky haze had grown dimmer and dimmer, and then they, too, were gone. How could I lose them? Schaefer thought. He could see nothing, and he heard nothing but the sounds of his own engines. All around him was a smothering cloak of whiteness. He executed a “lost plane” maneuver, turning fifteen degrees off course for a few minutes, and then turning back on course, hoping to pick up the formation again. Even from as low as 200 feet, he could not see the ground.

He climbed to 1,000 feet and was still in the cloud. Inside the chopper it was hot and getting hotter. He descended, this time below 200 feet. Schaefer could see the ground only intermittently. For three hours they flew like this, on nerves and instruments. The cockpit was overheated, and the men in it were increasingly tense.

“Is there anything in front of us?” Schaefer asked his co-pilot, Les Petty.

“Well, there’s a six-thousand-foot mountain in front of us,” Petty replied.

“How soon?” Schaefer asked.

“I don’t trust the machine,” Petty said, “and I don’t trust my map. I ain’t seen the ground in three hours. I’d say right now.”

So they started to climb. They climbed to 6,000 feet, and abruptly the dust cloud broke. Inside the chopper it was suddenly very cold. Off to one side Schaefer saw the peak of a mountain.

“Good job, Les,” he said. “I love you.”

Desert One was still about an hour away, so they plunged back into the haboob. This time Schaefer leveled off at 600 feet. He didn’t know it, but the remaining six choppers were doing the same. The lack of visibility had made all the crews woozy. It was especially hard on the pilots, whose night-vision goggles distorted depth perception and intensified feelings of vertigo. The men were becoming thirsty in the extreme heat. They knew that more tall peaks lay between them and Desert One, and they could only hope that visibility improved in time for them to steer around or over them.

It was a struggle for all of them, and finally one pilot gave up. Lieutenant Commander Rodney Davis had watched the control lights in his cockpit indicate a number of equipment failures. His compass was not working, and his other navigation devices were being affected by the heat. His co-pilot was feeling sick. When he lost sight of the nearest chopper, Davis was alone in the haboob. He tried spiraling downward, a maneuver for relocating his wingman, but he couldn’t see the other chopper and couldn’t get a clear fix on anything below that would give him his exact position. Davis took his aircraft up to 9,000 feet and was still in the cloud. He was at a critical point in the flight. To press on meant he’d have no chance of making it back to the carrier, for lack of fuel. Because he couldn’t see ahead or down, he might steer off course or collide with a mountain on the way to Desert One. He conferred with Colonel Chuck Pitman, the ranking officer of the entire formation, who was riding in back. They assumed that with the other seven choppers still en route (they did not know that one had already been lost), they would not fatally compromise the mission by turning back.

So they turned around.

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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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