Washington — It was the failures of three US Navy Sea Stallion helicopters that aborted the rescue of the American hostages in Iran as ordered by President Carter, and so changed history, in Iran's Great Salt Desert April 24.
Exactly what happened to those three big choppers, and why, is already the subject of exhaustive inquiries. These reach from the White House and Congress 11,500 miles around the world to the wardrooms of the US aircraft carrier Nimitz , where dispirited pilots and crews glumly listened to broadcast of Defense Secretary Harold Brown explaining the collapse of the mission.
On a CBS News "Face the Nation" television panel April 27, Secretary Brown repeated his earlier accounts of the helicopter failures but affirmed there was "no single reason" for the failure of the mission. He said the US would not give up until the hostages were free; that the US preferred peaceful means to do this. But he also warned US allies that this country expected them to press ahead with political and economic sanctions.
"They understand," he said, "that to avoid more extreme actions, their cooperation is important."
At home, the nation honored the eight men killed and five injured in the bold attempt, which, said Secretary Brown and top-ranking aides, had every chance of success before the helicopter breakdowns.
As planned ever since President Carter gave the order last Nov. 9 (five days after the hostages were captured), six of the eight big Sikorsky RH-53D helicopters assigned to the mission were the minimum necessary to reach the embassy compound in Tehran after the volunteer US command force had stormed it.
"It was almost unbelievable," said one Pentagon source. "One chopper went down in the desert in a sandstorm. The pilot lost his gyro artificial horizon: He couldn't tell between up and down."
By the time a backup chopper had sighted its assigned "buddy" going down and landed to pick up and carry its crew to "Desert One," the first rendezvous point , another Sea Stallion had developed different trouble and returned to the Nimitz.
Then the crew of a third helicopter discovered their craft had "unfixable" problems, apparently in its hydraulic system, on the ground at Desert One.
That left five -- one fewer than the minimum number considered safe for the mission. After refueling from several of the six C-130 Hercules transports that had flown directly to Desert One, near Tabas, 200 miles southeast of Tehran, the helicopters were to have flown to 90 commandos to "Mountain Hideout," the next scheduled base.
Mountain Hideout was to be just that -- a resting place close to Tehran, where darkness would shield the troops, and apparently trucks, cars, and other equipment pre-positioned by friendly Iranian elements, and perhaps by other American personnel infiltrated earlier.
Beyond this, details are conjecture, glimmering through the mesh of a tight security screen. Only the future may disclose whether large-scale tribal action , dissident Iranian military men, or other forces "friendly" to liberation of the hostages, would have been set in motion to assist in the mission as the commandos drove to their objectives.
A top Pentagon officer, whose name cannot be used, refused commen on these later stages of the mission. He did, however, confirm that the rest period at Mountain Hideout --just north of Tehran -- might have seen still another helicopter balk at making a cold start or otherwise fail.
Back at Desert One, a busload of 44 Iranians had been halted and detained until the operation aborted. (Another Iranian, a truck driver, made a Hollywood-style getaway in a sedan, after the US commandos had shot out the motor of his fuel tank truck.)
With only five serviceable Sea Stallions left, Army Col. Charles A. Beckwith, commander of the elite "Blue Light" commando unit trained at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and the site commander for the operation, recommended over the instant communications system to Army Maj. Gen. James B. Vaught, the overall commander who was remotely positioned (possibly aboard the Navy command and communications ship La Salle cruising in the Persian Gulf -- although this has not been disclosed), that it be scrubbed.
General Vaught agreed. Within minutes, in Washington, Gen. David C. Jones of the Air Force (who backed up Secretary Brown in briefing newsmen afterward at the Pentagon) and the Secretary himself had bucked the recommendation up to the President.
The President ordered the mission aborted. Later, in his tense, rather dispirited sunrise announcement April 25, he blamed the cancellation on the "mechanical failure" of the helicopters -- and rightly so, say those most closely concerned with the operation.
Then came the crowning blow. As a helicopter was making a hook turn about 15 feet off the ground at Desert One to approach one of the C-130s for the purpose of having its fuel tank topped off, a rotor blade slashed into the C-130's fuselage.
It severed the big plane's crew compartment from the cargo space, and both aircraft burst into flames. Exploding jet fuel and ammunition showered fiery debris. This made it impossible, the briefing office said, to recover either the remains of those killed or get the four remaining helicopters off the ground.
Swiftly, the C-130s lifted off with the survivors, flying (say Israeli radio monitors) back to their base in Egypt, with a refueling stop in Bahrain on the way.
Was pilot error the cause of the collision? Time, and debriefing of the burned pilot, now hospitalized with the three other burn victims in texas, will tell, say Pentagon officials.
Senior officials said maintenance teams aboard the Nimitz did not know the helicopters used in the raid were to have been used for anything beyond routine missions. Only one or two top officers knew. The choppers in the raid were not the same ones used in a series of gruelling, well-carried-out practice runs in the US.
Those practice sessions included seven full trial runs, including two that simulated the exact conditions of the 500-nautical-mile run from the Nimitz to Desert One.
What maintenance may or may not have been carried out aboard the Nimitz is something for the Navy to determine. Perhaps the manufacturer, the Sikorsky Aircraft Division of United Technologies Corporation in Stratford, Conn., and the General Electric Company, West Lynn, Mass., which makes the engine, will want to know, too.
The eight big choppers, capable of carrying between 30 and 40 people each, plus considerable equipment, were part of the Navy's inventory of 30. They were produced and delivered to the Navy between 1972 and 1976 and were used in Vietnam.
The helicopters originally were equipped for minesweeping and mine counter-measures. For the Iranian mission, that equipment was taken out and extra fuel tanks added. This gave them an extra 200 miles of range beyond the 500 they already had.
Ultimately, say insiders, the helicopters would probably have been destroyed or abandoned after they had swooped on the embassy compound (and possibly the Iranian Foreign Ministry also, to free the three diplomats then interned there), and flown the hostages to a third base, where the C-130s would have taken everyone out of Iran to safety.
"It was all like a meticulously planned, boldly executed dream," said one officer bitterly. "Sure, we'd be able to do it again -- but now it never will come true."