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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On the Runway, April 25, 2:00 A.M.

At Desert One there wasn’t time to dwell on the abort decision. Fitch directed his men to board one of the fuel planes. They piled in on top of the nearly emptied fuel bladders, which rippled like a giant black water bed. Everyone was weary and disappointed. Delta officer Eric Haney stripped off his gear and his black field jacket, balling it up behind him to form a cushion against the hard metal angles of the plane’s inner wall. He and some of the other men wedged their weapons snugly between the bladder and the wall of the plane to keep them secure and out of the way. Some of the men immediately fell asleep.

“We’re all set—let’s go,” Fitch told the plane’s crew chief.

Just behind their tanker, a combat controller in goggles, one of Carney’s crew, appeared outside the cockpit of Major Schaefer’s chopper and informed the pilot that he had to move his aircraft out of the way. Schaefer had refueled behind that tanker, and he now had enough fuel to fly back to the Nimitz, but first the C-130s needed to get off the ground.

So Schaefer lifted the front end of his craft. His crew chief hopped out to straighten the nose wheels, which had been bent sideways when they landed. Straightened, they could be retracted so that they wouldn’t cause drag in flight. The crew chief climbed back in, and Schaefer lifted the chopper to a hover at about fifteen feet and held it, kicking up an intense storm of dust that whipped around the combat controller on the ground. The combat controller was the only thing Schaefer could see below, a hazy black image in a cloud of brown, so the pilot fixed on him as a point of reference.

To escape the cloud created by Schaefer’s rotors, the combat controller retreated toward the wing of the parked C-130. Concentrating on his own aircraft, Schaefer didn’t notice that his blurry reference point on the ground had moved. He kept the nose of his blinded chopper pointed at the man below, and as the combat controller moved, the helicopter turned in the same direction, drifting to a point almost directly above the plane.

“How much power do we have, Les?” Schaefer asked, performing his usual checklist.

“Ninety-four percent,” Petty said.

Then Schaefer heard and felt a loud, strong, metallic whack! It sounded like someone had hit the side of his aircraft with a large aluminum bat. Others heard a cracking sound as loud as an explosion, but somehow sharper-edged, more piercing and particular, like the shearing impact of giant industrial tools. The Marine pilot’s rotors had clipped the top of the plane, metal violently smashing into metal in a wild spray of sparks, and instantly the helicopter lost all aerodynamics, was wrenched forward by the collision, its cushion of air whipped out from beneath, and it fell with a grinding bang into the C-130’s cockpit, an impact so stunning that Schaefer briefly blacked out. Both aircraft were carrying a lot of fuel—Shaefer had just filled his tanks, and the C-130 still had fuel in the bladder in its rear. And the sparks from the collision immediately ignited both of them with a powerful, lung-emptying thump that seemed to suck all the air out of the desert. A huge blue ball of fire formed around the front of the C-130, and a pillar of white flame rocketed 300 feet or more into the sky, turning the scene once more from night into day.

Beckwith pivoted the moment he felt and heard the crash, and started running toward it. He pulled up short, a football field away, stopped by the intense heat, and thought with despair of his men: Fitch’s entire troop, trapped.

Inside the C-130, Fitch had felt the plane begin to shudder, as though the pilots were revving the engines for takeoff. The hold had no windows, and he couldn’t tell if they were moving yet. Then he heard two loud, dull thunks. He thought maybe the nose gear or the landing gear had hit a rock, but when he looked toward the front of the aircraft he saw flames and sparks. He thought they were under attack.

He had removed his rucksack, and leaning against it was his weapon, an M203 grenade launcher. He grabbed it and stood, in a single motion. Beside him the plane’s load master, responding wordlessly to the same sight, pulled open the troop door on the port side of the plane. It revealed a solid wall of flame. Fitch helped the load master slam the door down and push the handle in to lock it. He and the men were perched on a thousand gallons of fuel, and they appeared to be caught in an inferno.

“Open the ramp!” Fitch shouted, but lowering it revealed more flames. The plane was going to explode. It was an enormous bomb on a short fuse, and the fuse was lit. The only other way out was the starboard troop door, which had been calmly opened by three of the plane’s crewmen. That way proved blessedly free of flames. Men started piling out of it before it was completely open.

Still inside, Sergeant Major Dave Cheney, a bull of a man with a big deep voice, kept shouting, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” as the men crowded toward the only escape. Flames were spreading fast along the roof, wrapping down the walls on both sides, and igniting in each man a primitive flight instinct that none of them could control. One of the junior Air Force crewmen fell and was being trampled by fleeing Deltas when Technical Sergeant Ken Bancroft fought his way to the man, picked him up, and carried him to the doorway and out. Cheney’s natural authority and clarity helped prevent an utterly mad scramble, and kept the men in a steady flow out the door. They were used to filing out this way on parachute jumps, so the line moved fast. Still, it was torture for the men at the rear.

Ray Doyle, a load master on one of the other tankers, more than a hundred feet away, was knocked over by the force of the initial explosion. Jessie Rowe, a crewman on another tanker, felt his plane shake and the temperature of the air suddenly shoot up. Burruss saw the plane erupt as he stepped off the back of his C-130. He was carrying incendiary explosives down the ramp, to destroy the disabled Sea Stallion, and the sight buckled him. He sat down and watched the tower of flame engulfing the plane, the downed chopper perched on top of it like a giant metal dragonfly, thinking, Man, Fitch and his whole squadron gone, those poor bastards. But then he saw men running from the fireball.

Pilots of the other craft quickly spread the word to their crews that they had not been attacked.

Haney was still inside the burning plane, near the end of the line of men trying to get out. He and those around him had been jarred alert by the noise and impact of the crash, and Haney had seen blue sparks overhead toward the front. Then the galley door at the front of the plane blew in, and flames blasted in behind it. “Haul ass!” shouted the man next to him, leaping to his feet.

Captain E. K. Smith, who had dozed off right after boarding the plane, woke up to see men trying to gain their footing on the shifting surface of the fuel bladder and thought it was amusing—until he saw the flames. He and the men around him scrambled toward the door as best they could, fearing they would never outrace the flames. Ahead, men were jammed in the doorway. When Haney finally reached the door, he threw himself out, dropping down hard on the man who had jumped before him. They picked themselves up and ran until they were about fifty yards away. Then they turned to watch with horror.

Fitch felt it was his duty to stay in the plane until all the men were off, but it was hard. As the flames rapidly advanced, he realized that not everyone was going to make it. Instinct finally won out, and both he and Cheney leaped out the door, falling when they hit the ground. Other men crashed on top of them. They helped one another up and over to where the others were now watching, brightly illuminated by the growing fire.

Fitch ran to what seemed a safe distance and then turned around, still assuming they were under attack, and lifted his weapon. He looked for the enemy and saw instead the awesome and ugly sight: the chopper, its rotors still turning, had clearly crashed down on the front of the plane. It wasn’t an attack; it was an accident.

He saw two more men jump out—one of them Staff Sergeant Joe Beyers, the plane’s radio operator, whose flight suit was burning. Other men rushed to put out the flames and drag him clear. Then ammunition started “cooking off,” all the grenades, missiles, explosives, and rifle rounds on both aircraft, causing loud, cracking explosions and throwing flames and light. The Redeye missiles went off, drawing smoke trails high into the sky. Finally the fuel bladders ignited, sending a huge pillar of flame skyward in a loud explosion that buckled the fuselage. All four propellers dropped straight down into the sand and stuck there, as if somebody had planted them.

In the chopper, Schaefer at last came to. He was sitting crooked in his seat, the chopper was listing to one side, and flames engulfed the cockpit.

“What’s wrong, Les, what’s wrong?” he asked, turning to his co-pilot. But Petty was already gone. He had jumped out the window on his side.

Schaefer shut down the engines and sat for a moment, certain he was about to die. Then, for some reason, an image came into his mind of his fiancée’s father—who had never seemed much impressed by his future son-in-law—commenting a few days hence on how the poor sap had been found roasted like a holiday turkey in the front seat of his aircraft. Something about that horrifying image motivated him. His body would not be found like a blackened Butterball; he had to at least try to escape. He ejected the window on his side, and as fire closed over him, badly burning his face, he dropped hard to the ground and then ran from the erupting wreckage.

The exploding aircraft and ammo sent flaming bits of hot metal and debris spraying across the makeshift airport, riddling the four remaining working helicopters, whose crews jumped out and moved to a safe distance. Most of the men had no idea what was going on; they knew only that a plane and a chopper had been destroyed. The air over the scene was heavy with the odor of fuel, so it wasn’t hard to imagine that all the other aircraft might burst into flames as well. The remaining C-130s began taxiing in different directions away from the conflagration.

Word of the calamity reached the command center in Wadi Kena in a hurried report: “We have a crash. A helo crashed into one of the C-130s. We have some dead, some wounded, and some trapped. The crash site is ablaze; ammunition is cooking off.”

The only course now was to clear out, and fast. Some thought was given to retrieving the bodies of the dead, but the fire was raging, and there wasn’t time. Reached by radio at Wadi Kena, Major General James Vaught, the mission’s overall commander, instructed Burruss to turn loose the Iranian bus passengers. The Delta officer ordered one of his men to disable the bus by ripping some wires from its engine.

As Burruss headed back to his C-130, he took one last look at the flaming ruins of the plane and the chopper and felt a stab of remorse over leaving the dead behind. But nothing could be done about it.

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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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