The first C-130 landed not on hard-packed desert, but on soft ankle-deep sand. Added to the misfortune was that a pickup truck was seen in the distance, and when it spotted the C-130, it reversed direction and sped away. Army Rangers gave chase, but they could not catch the pickup truck; it was assumed that they were smugglers, but the chance of losing the element of surprise was real. Then a bus loaded with Iranians on a pilgrimage headed towards the C-130, and as a result they were detained; the plan was to fly them out on a C-130, and when the mission was over, bring them back.
Before the mission, helicopter pilots secretly practiced taking off, flying, and landing in deserts as early as December 1979. Delta One would ly helicopters to the desert location in Iran, where they would meet up with five C-130s with 50 Rangers and aviation fuel. The helicopters would refuel and hide under camouflage netting and the Rangers would secure site. The following day, Delta One would fly to a mountain hideaway, codenamed Desert Two, approximately fifty miles northeast of Teheran. The Green Berets were already at Deset Two with unmarked trucks from friendly Iranians. The Green Berets would use the trucks to head to the Foreign Ministry and rescue the three Americans held hostage, and the Deltas would rescue the 52 hostages at the US Embassy. Both groups would have Farsi-speaking operatives, a rarity in the CIA in 1980.
While re-positioning a helicopter to permit another helicopter to top off its fuel tanks for the return flight, the pilot hovered about 15 feet above the desert floor, kicking up the fine sand in the air. A pilot in another helicopter that was picking up the crew from a disabled helicopter lowered his nose in the man-made sandstorm, and the rotors hit a wing of a C-130 on the ground. The helicopter lurched forward and crashed into the cockpit of the C-130; sparks from the collision started a horrific blaze that engulfed both aircraft. Eight US military men died, five were wounded as a result. The Iranian pilgrims were released and the remaining military men took the the bodies of those killed-in-action and those wounded-in-action and boarded the remaining C-130 and flew out of the area. With the time difference, the failed mission occurred at 10:30 am Washington, D.C. time, and Carter and the top members of the administration decided to keep following their normal schedules.
All those in the Carter administration realized that whatever chances of victory the President had in the Election of 1980 were now over . Within hours after the aborted mission, the 52 hostages were blindfolded, separated, and then transported to various locations in Iran. The failed mission became the metaphor for all that was wrong with the Carter Presidency, with Carter getting no credit for the audacious effort.
The real reason for the failure was, ironically, the lack of practice on the part of the military. Carter, a micromanaging detail man, left the details of the mission to the military planners, but there had never been this kind of coordination between Army Special Forces, Navy ships, Marines, Air Force helicopters, and C-130 cargo planes. There simply wasn’t enough, or perhaps any, practice involved with those separate military services.
On 25 April 1980 at 7 am, President Carter addressed the nation from the Oval Office about the failed rescue mission and the eight KIA. Carter stressed it was a humanitarian mission to rescue the 52 US hostages and he took full responsibility. On 30 April 1980, Carter announced that he was hitting the hustings (campaign trail) since the challenges of the nation were not “manageable enough”, which was a statement that didn’t resonate with millions of Americans.
The one positive of the failed mission was the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 which changed the way the separate military services interacted. The act created the Joint Special Operations Program (JSOP), which led to the coordinated mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The failed mission also helped convince Khomeini that he had squeezed as much use out of the hostages as he could, and he started to be at least somewhat amenable to negotiations for their release. It had also dawned on Khomeini that his government was viewed as a pariah state by most every nation around the world.
Afraid that a resurgent Shiite Iran would undermine his Sunni political base in Iraq, Saddam Hussein ordered his army to invade Iran on 22 September 1980. HIs official reason was a territorial dispute with Iran on coastal land in the Persian Gulf. Had Iraq not invaded Iran, there was every reason to believe that the hostages would have been released before Election Day 1980. Due to the invasion, the hostages were no longer even remotely a priority to Khomeini, but he wrongly assumed that Carter was behind Iraq’s decision to invade, which eventually meant that Khomeini would not release the hostages as long as Carter remained in office.
Carter decided to allow arms shipments to Iran that had been tabled, hoping doing so would lead to the release of the hostages, but the most-desired weapons that Iran wanted were not shipped (e.g. radar guided missiles). If Carter had less scruples than Reagan in terms of providing weapons to rogue nations, the hostages could have very well been released before Election Day. In the end, Khomeini refused to allow the hostages to leave Iranian airspace until Reagan was inaugurated on 20 January 1981 Rumors swirled of an “October Surprise” in that Reagan supposedly told Iran that he would ship all of the weapons that they were expecting. Adding credence to the conspiracy theory was the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, George HW Bush, disappeared from the campaign and was in Paris; subsequent Congressional hearings found no malfeasance.
Even after losing the Election of 1980, Carter and his administration worked hard to gain the release of the hostages on their watch. But Khomeini never forgave Carter for empowering and then enabling the Shah of Iran; the radical cleric wished Carter ill at every turn.