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 25, 1:00 A.M.

At the landing strip, Delta Force waited anxiously as precious minutes of darkness continued to slip away. It was an enormous relief when the men heard the distinctive whoop-whoop-whoop of the first two helicopters.

Schaefer, in the lead chopper, saw a giant pillar of flame, and his first thought was that one of the C-130s had crashed and exploded. He flew over Desert One and counted four planes on the ground, exactly what he expected to find. Thank you, Lord, he said to himself.

He turned to land on a second pass, and as he came down he clipped a rut so hard that he knew he had damaged his aircraft. The tires on his landing gear were blown and knocked off the rims. He had been in the air for five hours. He was tired and relieved and had to piss. Like the planes, the choppers kept their engines running to lower the risk of a mechanical failure; most problems showed up after stopping and restarting. Schaefer and most of his crew got out and walked around behind their chopper to urinate, and there Schaefer was confronted by the eager Beckwith, trailed by Burruss, Kyle, and the other commanders.

“What the hell’s going on?” the colonel asked. “How did you get so goddamn late?”

“First of all, we’re only twenty-five minutes late,” Schaefer said. “Second of all, I don’t know where anyone else is, because we went into a big dust cloud.”

“There’s no goddamn dust cloud out here,” Beckwith said, gesturing at the open sky. He had not been told about the haboobs on the way in.

“Well, there is one,” Schaefer said. He told Beckwith that the conditions coming in had been the worst he had ever flown through. His men were badly shaken. His chopper still flew but had been damaged. He wasn’t sure they could go on.

This was not what Beckwith wanted to hear.

“I’m going to report this thing,” he said angrily. He thought the pilot looked shattered, as if the pressure had completely broken him down. He slapped Schaefer on the back and told him that he and the others were going to have to suck it up.

Two more choppers arrived, and one of them was having a problem. Captain B. J. McGuire’s helicopter had been flying with a warning light on in the cockpit that indicated trouble with one of the hydraulic systems. Fitch was the first person to reach McGuire on landing.

“I’m so happy you are here!” Fitch said, shouting to be heard. “Where are the rest of the guys?”

“I don’t know,” McGuire said. “We don’t have any communication.”

McGuire told Fitch about the problem with his helicopter. He said he thought the working hydraulic system was sufficiently trustworthy for him to continue.

When the last two choppers finally landed, it was cause for quiet celebration. It was now 1:30 in the morning, which gave the men just enough time to get everything done and hidden before full daylight. They had the required six helicopters. Some members of the assault force exchanged high fives. Seiffert soon had his pilots maneuvering their empty choppers into position behind the four tankers to refuel. Their wheels made deep tracks in the fine sand, and the turning rotors whipped up violent dust storms. The rotors and propellers were deafening, and all around the aircraft were fierce little sand squalls. The truck fire was still burning brightly.

Beckwith, impatient to get his men aboard the choppers and be off, climbed into the last one to land and tried to get the attention of Seiffert, who was coordinating these maneuvers from his cockpit.

“Request permission to load, Skipper,” Beckwith said. “We need to get with it.”

Seiffert either didn’t hear him or ignored him. “Hey, remember me?” Beckwith asked. He then slapped the pilot’s helmet. Seiffert took off his helmet and confronted Beckwith angrily.

“I can’t guarantee we’ll get you to the next site before first light.”

“I don’t care,” Beckwith said.

Seiffert told him to go ahead and load his men.

Beckwith was moving from chopper to chopper, urging things forward, when another of the helicopter pilots stepped out and said, “The skipper told me to tell you we only have five flyable helicopters. That’s what the skipper told me to tell you.”

Looking around, the colonel could see that the rotor on one of the Sea Stallions had stopped turning. Someone had shut it down.

It was precisely what he had feared: these pilots were determined to scuttle his mission. It had not been lost on the other commanders, most of whom outranked Beckwith, that the pugnacious colonel regarded them all as inferiors, as supporting players. The pilots, the navigators, the air crews, the fuel-equipment operators, the Rangers, the combat controllers, the spies in Tehran, even the generals back at Wadi Kena—they were all ordinary mortals, squires, spear carriers, water boys. Their job was to serve Delta, to get the colonel and his magnificent men into place for their rendezvous with destiny. All along, Beckwith had been impatient with and suspicious of the other services and units involved; in his eyes, they all lacked experience, nerve, and skill. So now, when things began to go sour, Beckwith felt not just disappointment and anger but contempt.

When he found Kyle, he bellowed, “That goddamn number-two helo has been shut down! We only have five good choppers. You’ve got to talk to Seiffert and see what he says. You talk their language—I don’t.” Beckwith didn’t see mechanical problems with the helicopters; he saw faltering courage in the men who flew them. He said as much to Kyle, grumbling that the pilots were looking for excuses not to go.

The comment burned the Air Force officer, who had been contending with Beckwith for months. He knew better than to argue with him. The chopper captains had the same kind of responsibilities that Beckwith had, and they were responsible for getting their own crews in and out safely. No one knew their machines better than they did, because they literally bet their lives on them every time they flew.

Seiffert had made his decision. One of the hydraulic pumps on McGuire’s chopper was shot, and they had no way to fix it. Kyle asked if it would be possible to fly using just the remaining pump, and Seiffert told him emphatically, “No! It’s unsafe! If the controls lock up, it becomes uncontrollable. It’s grounded!”

When Fitch returned from rounding up the rest of his men, he was surprised to find that his second-in-command, Captain E. K. Smith, was still waiting with his squadron in the dust. He told Smith to get the men on the choppers.

“The mission is an abort,” Smith said.

“What do you mean, it’s an abort?”

“Colonel Beckwith said it’s an abort,” Smith said. He explained that McGuire’s chopper couldn’t fly. This contradicted what Fitch had heard from McGuire—that the chopper was damaged but flyable. Fitch knew his commander was such a hothead that it was entirely possible Beckwith had said something like that knowing only half the story.

“E.K., I’m not doubting your word, but I’m going to see Beckwith about this,” he said.

The abort scenario, which they had rehearsed, called for Fitch and his men to board not the helicopters but one of the tankers. The choppers would fly back to the carrier, and the planes would return to Masirah. Fitch told Smith to prepare the men to board the plane, but said they should wait until he returned.

Finding Colonel Beckwith in the noise and swirling dust wasn’t easy; one of the things the plan lacked was a clearly defined rallying point, or command center. So it took some wandering, but Fitch eventually found Beckwith, Burruss, Kyle, and the other mission commanders huddled outside one of the C-130s with a secure satellite radio.

“What’s going on?” he shouted over the din.

“Well, Seiffert said that helicopter can’t fly—that it’s not mission capable—and we’re down to five,” Beckwith said, disgusted.

Kyle and the chopper crews said they were ready to proceed with five helicopters, but that would require trimming the assault force by twenty men. Beckwith refused. “We all go or nobody goes,” he said. The question was passed up the chain to Washington, where Secretary of Defense Harold Brown relayed the situation to Brzezinski in the White House. The national-security adviser, who only minutes earlier had been told that all six choppers were refueling and that the mission was proceeding as planned, was stunned. He quickly assessed what he knew, and engaged in a little wishful thinking. He imagined Beckwith, who had been so gung-ho in his visit to the White House, fuming in the desert, eager to proceed but stymied by more-cautious generals in the rear. So he directed Brown to tell the commanders on the ground that if they were prepared to go ahead with only five choppers, they had White House approval. He then left to find Carter.

In the din of Desert One the mission commanders received Brzezinski’s message and reconsidered. It angered Beckwith to even be asked; he felt his judgment and commitment were being questioned. Nevertheless, he said, “Can we make it with fewer aircraft?”

“Sir, we have been through this in rehearsals,” Fitch said. “Who are we going to leave behind?”

Some felt that they could trim the package and proceed. Shortly before lifting off on the mission, they had received new and reliable intelligence about the location of the hostages in the embassy compound, which would eliminate the need for some of the searching they had planned to do. Perhaps they could do it with fewer men.

But Beckwith was more cautious. Which men would they leave behind? If they left the interpreters, who would talk them past the roadblocks in the city? If they got five choppers to the hide sites, how likely was it that all five would restart the next day? If one or two failed to start, and another got hit—likely scenarios that had been built into the plan—how were they going to airlift out all the hostages and Beckwith’s men? The plan was finely wrought, with such a delicate balance between risk and opportunity that asking Beckwith to omit any piece was too much. It meant shifting the odds too greatly against his men and his beautiful creation, which he was not prepared to do. That was the conclusion the mission planners had reached in advance, after calm, careful deliberation. These automatic-abort scenarios had been predetermined precisely to avoid life-and-death decisions at the last minute. This was clearly an abort situation. On the mission schedule, just after the line “less than six helos,” was the word “ABORT,” and it was the only word on the page in capital letters.

“I need every man I’ve got and every piece of gear,” Beckwith said finally. “There’s no fat I can cut out.”

The decision was relayed to Wadi Kena and to Washington, where Brzezinski broke the news of the setback to Carter. Standing in a corridor between the Oval Office and the president’s study, Carter muttered, “Damn. Damn.”

He and Brzezinski were soon joined by a larger group of advisers, including Walter Mondale, Hamilton Jordan, Warren Christopher, and Jody Powell. Standing behind his desk, his sleeves rolled up and hands on his hips, the president told them, “I’ve got some bad news … I had to abort the rescue mission … Two of our helicopters never reached Desert One. That left us six. The Delta team was boarding the six helicopters when they found out that one of them had a mechanical problem and couldn’t go on.”

“What did Beckwith think?” Jordan asked.

Carter explained that they had consulted with Beckwith, and that the decision had been unanimous.

“At least there were no American casualties and no innocent Iranians hurt,” Carter said.

Presented by

Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of Black Hawk Down. He has written a book about the hostage crisis and its aftermath, Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published by Grove/Atlantic in May. 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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