Tanker veterans share Operation Eagle Claw experience during 'Living Legends' speaker series

  • Published
  • By Bekah Clark
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Four "living legends" of the air refueling tanker world who were one part of the once top secret Operation Eagle Claw gathered for Air Mobility Command's fifth "Tanker Living Legends" speaker's panel on Oct. 21 in the Main Conference Room of AMC Headquarters.

The panel included tanker veterans retired Col. Billy Batson, retired Col. Bill Deegan, and retired Lt. Col. Paul "P.T." Webb, who participated in person while panel member Col. Dave Ziegler was unable to attend the presentation and participated through a pre-made video. The panel highlighted Operation Eagle Claw, more commonly known as Operation Desert One -- the rescue attempt of U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1980.

The background
On Nov. 4, 1979, 3,000 militant Iranian students climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, overthrew the security guards, and took 66 U.S. hostages. By the eighth day of the crisis, the Pentagon had stood up the Joint Operational Planning Cell to begin mitigation and rescue plans.

President Jimmy Carter sought out diplomatic solutions throughout the ordeal, to include enforcement of trade embargoes and freezing financial assets, however, his efforts were not met with success. By April 8, 1980, the U.S. broke off diplomatic negotiations with Iran. Eight days later, on April 16, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved Operation Eagle Claw -- the U.S. military operation that would attempt to rescue the hostages.

The mission was considered a "blacked out operation," said Colonel Batson who was in charge of establishing the tanker support force for the operation from his position as Director of Air Refueling for Strategic Air Command. "I found out there was going to be a lot of tankers required for this operation," he said.

Planning and preparation
At the time, all tankers were centralized underneath the air refueling directorate at Strategic Air Command. The planning division of that directorate was highly involved in the organization of the operation as tankers would be in high demand for the operation since air refueling would be necessary and new refueling tactics would have to evolve because the AC-130s and MC-130s lack of experience with air refueling procedures and tactics. Because of this unfamiliarity with refueling procedures, tanker crews, under extremely tight security, worked with gunship crews and others over a five-month period before the operation to develop combat tactics still in use today.

In those five months, the aircrews trained at Eglin AFB, Fla., Hurlburt Field, Fla., and Andersen Air Base, Guam, practicing refueling at low airspeed and low altitude using night vision goggles, in "blackout" procedures with the radio and radar out, and only partial inertial navigation systems.

"It's a challenge for a jet tanker to refuel a propeller-driven aircraft," Colonel Batson said. "As it was for this operation, they had to do this in 'black out' conditions so it was even tougher for them."

"We would have to fly over 1,000 feet over the receiver and then slow to 200 knots. They would then climb to our elevation and the refueling would take place," said Colonel Deegan, a KC-135 pilot in the operation, about refueling the EC-130s and AC-130s.

"I spent 47 days in Guam getting ready and participating in this operation," added Colonel Zeigler, also a KC-135 pilot in the operation.

Assembling the force proved to be a new challenge as well. KC-135Q tankers were called in to provide refueling because of their unique boom interphone refueling capability needed for the other aircraft involved in the operation. These Q-model tankers were brought in from Plattsburgh AFB, N.Y. and Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind.

"This entire operation had to be compartmentalized so no one person had the entire plan," said Colonel Webb, SAC's lead planner for tanker involvement in Operation Eagle Claw.

"It was a 'need to know' operation," Colonel Deegan added. "We could only guess what was going on and boy did we do some guessing."

Planned as a two-day mission under the cover of darkness, C-130s would come from the island of Masirah in the Gulf of Oman and Marine RH-53D helicopters would participate from the USS Nimitz, landing at "Desert One," just south of Tehran. The RH-53Ds would ground refuel, then carry the raiding party to "Desert Two" just outside the city.

On the second night, Delta Force would assault the embassy compound and take the hostages to a nearby soccer field. Rangers would capture the Manzariyeh Air Base to receive the hostages arriving on the RH-53Ds. From there two C-141s would take the hostages from Manzariyeh to safety.

Air Force aircraft were available in country to execute the plan -- four EC-130Es, four MC-130s, four AC-130s and two C-141s. The Navy provided eight RH-53Ds, the USS Nimitz and the USS Coral Sea.

Tankers were tasked to support AC-130 gunships on the second night of this special operations joint mission, while the assault was occurring in Tehran.

Additionally, tankers were essential in assisting additional aircraft get in place for the operation.

"Tankers moved AC-130s to Guam. C-5s took the RH-53 helicopters to Diego and those C-5s were supported by tankers," said Colonel Batson.

Sequence of events
Staging at Wadi Kena, Egypt, and Masirah, Oman, eight USMC-flown RH-53Ds departed from the USS Nimitz, 60 miles off the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, Plattsburgh and Grissom tankers staged in Egypt and a tanker task force was set up at Diego Garcia to support Navy operations.

However, the operation never made it past the first night because one RH-53D landed short of site due to a cracked rotor warning light, one turned back to the carrier because of a sandstorm and inoperative equipment, the six remaining RH-53Ds landed at Desert One, but one was unable to proceed because of hydraulic failure, causing the mission to be aborted. When the remaining RH-53Ds went to depart Desert One to return after the mission was aborted, one of the helicopters hovered into and landed on an EC-130E because of the dust kicked up by the rotors -- killing eight service members.

Instead of returning on the RH-53Ds, all personnel boarded C-130s and departed for Masirah and then Germany via C-141s. Because of the chaos, all six remaining RH-53Ds were left unsanitized and abandoned, and eight dead crewmembers were left in place -- five Airmen and three Marines.

Forty-four Iranian hostages at the site were released after the bus stumbled upon the scene the first night, causing special forces to take control of the bus and people in order to avoid the mission being compromised.

"When they aborted the mission, communications weren't allowed." It's because of that Colonel Ziegler and his KC-135 crew said they made an "unannounced" landing at Diego Garcia with their tanker. Colonel Ziegler's plane ended up flying around the world by the operation's end.

"For air refueling, we held an orbit 75 to 100 miles off the coast of Iran," Colonel Ziegler said. "Our total flight hours for that night's operation were about 16 to 17 hours."

The White House announced the failed rescue operation the next day on April 25. The Secretary of State resigned April 28 after learning of the operation. Subsequently, the U.S. hostages were scattered across Iran to make a second rescue attempt impossible.

"Primary air refueling took place on night two, with the C-130s," said Colonel Batson, referring to the remaining EC-130s with the operation survivors in getting them back to Egypt and then to the U.S. in the days following.

"(Despite the aborted mission), the tankers were absolutely superb, which is the way they operate-- always have," said Colonel Batson said.

Lessons learned
After analyzing the unsuccessful operation, one major lesson was learned: the need for unity of command and joint training. Up until this point, joint operations had been extremely limited and thus, during Desert One, the U.S. military learned the value of good communication as well as the dangers of overly complex and needlessly compartmentalized planning.

"Each weapon system that was going to be involved in the operation had their own little compartmentalized cell in the Pentagon and there was very little, to no, written tasking," said Colonel Webb.
Also learned was that properly experienced aviators were not used in the mission and 12 RH-53Ds should have been launched to get six usable aircraft. Also, air refuelable helicopters should have been used instead of ground refueling versions.

"I think what this all indicated was the absolute requirement for air refueling in almost any type of operation," said Colonel Batson.

"We proved to the receiving community that we could do this (special operations mission)," Colonel Deegan added.