The following are some brief stories on the Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission. It has been 34 years since that mission, and since I did not keep a diary, there may be some errors, but these stories reflect the best of my senior memory. Most probably know the mission scenario, so I haven't written this as a mission description. You can find that on the internet. This is a collection of stories about aspects of the mission.
On 4 Nov, Iranian Students took over the US Embassy in Tehran and kept 52 people as hostages. I was assigned to the 1st Special Operations Squadron, Kadena AB, Okinawa.
The first unusual event was getting a call on Christmas Eve to come into the squadron. I was having breakfast when the call came in. I was on one of two crews selected to fly in the mission. My date of rank was 12 out of the 14 Navs in the unit, but I was the Chief Group Flight Examiner, and I was glad they picked me. My wife did not buy my explanation that it was nothing.
I don't believe any of us told our wives what we were doing, but when you are a member of a "Special Operations Squadron" and your mission is covert/clandestine operations, and an International event like the Iranian Hostages occurs, it is not illogical to conclude that we were somehow involved with a mission related to that. Then there were the TDY's where you just tell your wife you can't say what or where you are going, and you weren't sure when you would be back. Not that we hadn't done that before, but it still made for suspicion.
We had to develop the ability to land on NVG's. Interestingly, months before, a study on NVG landings had been done with the conclusion that it was not practical. Remember that the first generation NVG's were not that good, unlike those we use today. On our first NVG practice, we completed our power on checklists and then began to use masking tape to subdue, but not eliminate lighting. I remember those first generation NVG's did not have any gain control or automatic gain adjustment. They were designed to see the blackness of the proverbial coal miner’s ass and any light would look like the sun exploded. On our first approach, the radar altimeter low altitude light came on, looked like the exploding sun, and caused a missed approach. Thinking back, I think we perform a power on radar altimeter check that cycles the altimeter to some high altitude like 1000 feet, then goes to zero where the low altitude light comes on and then cycles back to what it was set to...perhaps 200 feet, and the light goes off. So we missed it for masking tape. But we learned it sure does come back on when you are really flying and go below that altitude. You learn a lot when you are trying to invent a new procedure.
At some point in time, I figured we would need to be able to come up with our own final altimeter setting. So I came up with a procedure our crew used which was to fly over a known terrain elevation as close to landing as possible, look at the radar altimeter and pressure altimeter readouts simultaneously, then add the radar altimeter readout to the chart terrain altitude to come up with a calculated pressure altimeter altitude reading. We then compared that calculated pressure altitude to the actual pressure altitude reading we just took and just adjusted the altimeter altitude by that amount, which then gave us an altimeter setting. I don't know how it is done today.
One of the limitations of our operations was that we did not have (at least I don't remember) a deployed weather person. Not that it would have done any good. They likely had no way of getting any weather information anyway. BBC radio was our best contact with the outside world and the OPSEC conop said we could hardly talk to anyone, so we wouldn't have even if we could.
I asked our planners if we could request the Defense Mapping Agency in St Louis to send us detailed charts of Iran. OPSEC determined that a Special Operations Unit asking for charts of Iran would tip our plans. PACAF bases seemed to only have PACAF area charts. By now, I knew I was not allowed to ask for charts of Iran. So when we finally got to Travis AFB, who had worldwide maps, I asked the airman behind the base ops counter for some sort of chart in the US. When he returned, I said it was the wrong chart. He went back again and again I kept saying it was the wrong chart. So, per my plan, I suggested that I just go back into the chart room to find the correct chart on my own. He agreed. No problem. I got several charts of the Iranian area. Good news and bad news. Good news is I got some charts. Bad news was that - Holy "S..." key areas were blank white spaces annotated with "Unreliable terrain data in this area" or something like that. We eventually did get some decent charts.
I remember talking to our EWO about the order of battle. Seems a lot of the threats we could encounter would be US weapon systems we sold to Iran, like the F-15 and KA band radar systems. Our Dash 3 did not have data on our own stuff, so we had to find it ourselves. Our EWO suite did not have a KA band detector, so we improvised. We flew into Iran with a fuzz buster with KA on the top of our instrument panel. One system I was afraid of was AWACS and good thing it was not in the area at that time (at least not to my knowledge). The mission was so compartmentalized, that I am sure there is a lot I don't know of even today.
During one of our practices, we were told to sit tight on the ground for a while. During that time, a C-141 tried to make a blacked out landing. It made several missed approaches from all sorts of final courses not on runway heading or centerline. As the sun came out, they finally made a landing, probably without even needing NVG's. Never saw them again. Decades later, I told that story to the guys in my AF Reserve squadron. I described the event that those poor SOB's had a hard time making a blacked out approach and landing. Actually, I probably said something like they couldn't find their ass with both hands and a flashlight. One of the pilots, a friend of mine in the unit and classmate named Jim Glenn then said, "I was that poor SOB". Small world.
One of our practice missions originated out of Pope AFB. It snowed that day, and we asked for a de-icing truck. We were refused the truck. Seems Pope did not seem to support non-AMC aircraft with crewmembers who didn't wear patches very well. The mission was canceled for a day. My guess is that it impacted at least 26 aircraft. Next night, we got to the plane and an unhappy Colonel was personally supervising preparing our plane including de-icing. He asked me, "Who are you guys?" I wish I had a Batman T-shirt under my flight suit, so I could show it and answer..."Batman."
I wondered what ATC thought on one of our practices. Six C-130's fly from the east coast and converge over Texas, declare MARSA involving aerial refueling with Tankers from somewhere, cancel IFR, disappear and drop down into VFR low level, then show up again several hours later to activate our IFR flight plan beginning with more MARSA with Tankers, and then fly back to Hurlburt Field.
When I did my first preliminary mission planning of the mission, I and others realized - our takeoff weight was off the charts. We did not have accurate flight data, especially fuel flow. I have encountered many near misses of low fuel due to the lack of accurate fuel flow data. Our takeoff weight was around 175,000 lbs. The ABCCC birds were around 194,000 lbs. On return from Desert One, I wanted fuel, but knew those behind me needed it more. We pressed on without an in-flight refueling, and I was thankful we didn't flame out en-route back to Masirah, Oman. Some planes did like I did, and I think one of the planes had #2 engine flame out on the taxi in.
Our FOB was at Masirah Island, Oman. We ate C rations. I didn't drink enough water. I went days without a bowel movement, but then had my first BM after days of C-Rations. I thought I had given birth to a bowling ball. I was in pain but I was so proud that I got up to look at it, and it looked like a little brown marble.
While we were in Masirah, the maintenance guys were fine tuning the alignment of our INS systems. I had an Astro engineering degree, so I knew how INS systems worked, so I was interested in and would watch as the maintainers performed ground calibrations. On one ground alignment cycle, the ground support cart program tape broke. I wasn't happy. But the INS worked fine on the mission.
OPSEC also resulted in basically no medical people with us. I learned there was no medical help to sooth my sore sphincter from my bowel movement adventure. When the mission returned with several burn victims, we all wished we had morphine to give them. Getting morphine from the base hospital required some sort of special narcotic approval, so we went without. We couldn't even get charts, so morphine was out of the question. When the C-141 medivac arrived, I assumed they got morphine. I kind of wish I could meet those medivacs to thank them.
I remember our intel briefing. We had the regular stuff like SAFE area's, etc. There was hardly anything on threats though. We saw how they liked to hang people from cranes. Then the intel officer stated that if we got captured, the Iranian culture was that they were forbidden to have extra-marital sex with women. Guys, on the other hand, were fair "game"; that convinced us to not get captured.
I didn't know we had flown through a Haboob sandstorm till after the mission. What I did notice was en-route, our FLIR display went from clear to fuzzy. I thought the cooling system was acting up. The picture eventually cleared up. I concluded the fuzziness was the sandstorm.
Our C-130 had an Infrared System. It is mounted in a ball turret that can be swiveled 360 degrees around the aircraft, except, it could not travel past the rear centerline of the aircraft. If you were looking almost straight back on the right side of the aircraft, and wanted to continue just past the rear centerline to the left side of the aircraft, you had to turn the turret almost 360 degrees around the front of the aircraft to the left side to pick up the target. The navigator controlling the FLIR, sits sideways and looks up and back to a TV screen mounted on the upper back wall of the flight deck. I was looking at a target near a turn point, just to the right forward side of the aircraft. I followed the target as we made a left turn. The target went past the right side of the aircraft and then behind the aircraft, and then it began to move to the left side of the aircraft. I hit the rear centerline stop, so I had to make the turret rotate counterclockwise around the right side to the front and then around to the left side to pick up that target. I then went to look out the front window, and saw we were in a left bank as we were turning. I almost threw up my greasy C-rations. My brain just could not handle me sitting sideways toward the right side of the plane, flying towards my left, looking up and to my right - backward at the TV screen, looking at a target below me, trying to keep up with where I was as I was swiveling the FLIR 360 degrees around the airplane from the right side to left side, and then looking forward to see that we were in a left bank. My mind just couldn't keep track of all of those orientations. If I were an INS, my gyro's would have caged.
On our first approach to Desert One, which was right on time, Delta blew up a fuel truck. It looked like another exploding sun event. Missed approach, then we landed.
For whatever reason, it looks like we didn't calculate how much drag the sand would impact our takeoff speeds. I remember the pilots and engineer saying the airspeed had leveled off during takeoff roll and was at least above min control speed, but not rotation / takeoff speed. We were headed toward a road, which, Holy "S..." had a berm or ditch along it. I figured we would have our landing gear torn off, and have to walk out of Iran. But, we popped up into the air, milked ground effect and slowly climbed out. I am thankful to my AC, Marty Jubelt. I wonder if the sand drag impact was calculated (if at all) based on normal C-130 weights rather than the off-the-chart heavy weights we actually were at. We had no problem during our practices in dirt conditions in Nevada, but again, those were at different weights. Later in life as an engineer at Lockheed Martin Astronautics, I would learn the phrase "Test Like You Fly"…learned it a decade too late.
Our main contact with the outside world was BBC radio. We heard that the Iranians stated that it was not possible that 6 C-130's and 6 helicopters (out of 8) had flown into their country. Small consolation of our achievement.
I was scheduled to separate from the AF in mid April. I missed my port call from Okinawa back to the States, but my wife didn't. She flew back to my parent’s house in Fairfield, California in mid April. She wondered why she had to return to the US without me. On April 25th, she flew from California to her home in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. On a stopover in Chicago O'Hare airport, she saw the headline in the newspaper. C-130/Helicopter crash in Iran. I hadn't told her I was on that sort of mission, but she figured I was on that C-130. She didn't know that there had been 6 C-130s. She made several calls, and eventually was told I was OK. I imagine concern for husbands impacted at least 170 or more wives that day. She didn't divorce me and we're still married.
When I got back to Kadena, I had several messages to report to the Support Group Commander in person. When I walked into his office and reported, the first words out of his mouth was that I did not report properly. So I went out, came back in, stood one fist width from his desk, saluted and reported. It went downhill from there. He chewed me out like you see in the movies. But it was fun for me because I didn't care. What could he do....kick me out of the AF? I calmly asked to use his phone, called my commander who then said something to him that calmed him down.
I and one of the Delta Force guys...I think his name was Jim Roberts, was asked to speak at an ACSC seminar decades ago. Jim had some funny stories. He said that Delta was constantly being visited by congressional staffers that interfered with their training. One day, they put one of those staffers on a sofa in a pitch black room in one of their training buildings. They then burst in, guns ablaze. They didn't have any visits for a while. Probably had to clean the sofa too.
Jim was in the C-130 that got hit by the helicopter. He said he ran to the back, and saw the loadmaster open the left paratroop door. In came a fireball that burned the loadmasters eyebrows off. The loadmaster calmly closed the door, and said, "This is the wrong door" or something like that. They then went out the right paratroop door. As Jim was running away from the blazing C-130, he looks back and saw one of his buddies leap out the door in the freefall body position and hit the ground on his chest. He says his buddy was asleep when the collision occurred, thought they were hit in-flight, and were escaping the burning plane. Hadn't thought about not having a parachute.
I have flown in Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, along with Aerial Firefighting. You could get an Air Medal just for flying a certain number of missions in those theaters. The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission was one of (but not the most) difficult mission I have flown in. But interestingly, not worthy of an Air Medal compared to 25 missions into Kosovo.
For years, I looked upon that mission as a total failure. But at the 20th anniversary ceremony at Arlington, one of the hostages spoke at the luncheon, and said they had become aware of the mission, and their spirits were lifted because they were amazed that their country would risk the lives of over 100 military personnel to rescue them. Also, later I became aware of the term, "Successful Failure". Many credit the Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission with the creation of the US Special Operations Command and the AF Special Operations Command. So now my viewpoint that the mission was a total failure is tempered a bit. I will be going to the 35th anniversary of that mission in Arlington next year.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!