Birth of the Night Stalkers
Back in January 1980, Ol’ Weird was newly arrived for his third tour at Fort Bragg, fresh from Foreign Area Officer work in 17 Latin American countries. His Spanish was near-native and his Portuguese fluent, but his Russian from school was rusty. He was destined for chief of the Latin America desk in 1st Psychological Operations Battalion.
In November 1979, Iranian terrorists had overrun the US embassy in Tehran and seized our diplomats taking them hostage. Like many in the Special Operations world, Ol’ Weird was brainstorming how to get them out. His concept was all Army aviation, as simple as possible, using CH-47Ds (Chinook helicopter) with inboard extended fuel tanks, range 800 nautical miles. The Chinooks would fly low-level from the mountains of Turkey into the embassy compound in Tehran, kick out the on-board fuel bladders, and have full fuel tanks to get back out to safety in Turkey. Ol’ Weird had calculated six birds were needed to complete the mission, so using the airborne planning rule-of-thumb of 1/3 combat losses, send nine.
He knew Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta was the direct action force for the mission. This was the nation’s first dedicated counter-terrorism military unit, patterned after the British Special Air Service, but focused on the hostage rescue mission. Following a proliferation of international terrorist hostage incidents in the mid-1970s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had charged COL Charlie Beckwith with forming up the unit. Beckwith named the unit after his old Operational Detachment Delta in Vietnam. They called themselves “OD Delta” or simply “Delta,” but never, ever, the Hollywood “Delta Force.”
Ol’ Weird’s old buddy from Fort Hood and Leavenworth ‘76 had been the original S-2 (Intelligence Officer) when Delta was formed early in 1977. He had kept Ol’ Weird apprised on their training, missions and capabilities as much as he could, so Ol’ Weird knew what their charter was. By the end of 1979 all the original officers in Delta were coming up on rotation time (Change of duty station or job). In February 1980, Ol’ Weird was nominated by his friend to be his replacement as S-2, vouching for his Ranger, Airborne, G-2 and foreign military intelligence creds. He never told them Ol’ Weird was also an aviator – unbeknownst to Ol’ Weird, the kiss of death.
In those days, Delta was still located in the old Post stockade on Fort Bragg main post. Ol’ Weird was received very cordially by the unit Executive Officer (XO), since COL Beckwith was in DC that week. The XO gave him a comprehensive tour of the facility, and their organization and equipment. For a unit of a couple hundred shooters, their arms room had over 3,000 weapons, from virtually every manufacturer and country on the planet.
Eventually they sat down in the XO’s office, and he asked Ol’ Weird whether he had any questions. One thing had struck him as odd: He had seen no indication at all of aviation capability or expertise on staff. Since that would obviously be crucial to any extraction mission in Iran, Ol’ Weird asked where their aviation people were. For the first time all day, the XO glanced down and realized those were aviator wings on Ol’ Weird’s uniform, and his countenance turned to ice. He said, “We don’t have any aviators here. Charlie thinks they are all a bunch of cowards. He won’t have one anywhere around. If we need anything, we have JCS task the Air Force.” With that, his interview abruptly ended.
As Ol’ Weird was escorted out of the stockade, he was shaking his head, saying “These guys are collision-bound for a disaster.” They were obviously going to be sent into Tehran, but no one in the command group had the slightest clue about the capabilities of Army aviation and the complexities of long-range night clandestine missions.
Sure enough, a few weeks later the entire world got the news that our hostage rescue mission to Iran turned out to be a catastrophic nightmare. Helicopters and C-130s (fixed wing cargo aircraft) collided on the ground inside Iran, precious air crew members and Delta shooters were incinerated, and the entire mission was aborted as a disastrous failure. But even Ol’ Weird never imagined how fouled up the operation had become. From open sources at the time, this is what he learned about what happened.
For the biggest military action of his time in office, President Jimmy Carter had apparently decided that every service had to get their piece of the rescue operation. The Navy would provide the helicopters (helos), so the Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, to provide eight RH-53D’s (special naval mission cargo helicopters)[since six was recognized to be the absolute minimum to perform the mission]. Commander, Pacific Fleet Aviation Assets) was told, “Don’t ask questions; you will never see your birds again, but they will be replace with new aircraft.” So, imagine which eight aircraft he decided to get rid of!
The Marine Corps was told, send us eight qualified CH-53 (Marine version of giant cargo helicopters) crews for a special mission, and as always, the Marines sent the very best people they could pick. But their crews had never even seen the Navy models they were being asked to fly. They were strangers to the aircraft they were going to have to fly into combat!
The Air Force had to get their starring role, so somehow the JCS cobbled together this insane plan to fly everybody into an airfield inside Iran, in complete blackout. There, the Marine-crewed Navy helos (sometimes called Jolly Green Giants) would hot-refuel from Air Force C-130s, taxiing around blindly in the sand and dark. What could possibly go wrong??
Army’s Delta operators, meanwhile, were to be sitting on board, trusting all the other services’ aviation assets to perform flawlessly. Once refueled, the helos would fly low-level into Tehran and air assault Delta into the embassy compound. There they would recover our hostages and re-board for the return flight to the Iranian airbase, where the refueling circus would play again. Then everyone would fly home. Happy ending.
So much for the plan. But, of course….
After initial launch, one of the helos made a precautionary return to base. Down to seven. Once all the services had landed at the Iranian airfield, in a vicious sandstorm [surprise, surprise!!], confusion reigned supreme. Tragically, the aircraft had milled around so long on the ground in the heat and fumes that the crews were overheating to delirium, not to mention the Delta guys. One Marine crew member pulled off his flight jacket and tossed it aside in the blackout, where it landed on the air intake to the Auxiliary Power Unit, setting the helo on fire. Now down to six mission-essential helos, with the margin for error now zero.
But still, drive on. Then, almost predictably, one assault helo and a refueler C-130 executed a mid-air collision on the ground. The resulting inferno incinerated air crew members and Delta operators, as well as the two aircraft involved. Third bird, plus some superb warriors, was now lost — mission abort!!
The remaining aircraft, with the surviving Delta shooters aboard, limped back out, the mission a complete failure. There was nothing to show for the gargantuan endeavor, but some really fine men dead, all survivors totally demoralized, and the US military completely humiliated. The JCS had demonstrated themselves to be abysmally incompetent to plan hostage rescue missions, and the specialized nature of aviation support for high-risk night special operations missions was driven home.
Thus was born Joint Task Force 160, later designated the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Night Stalkers, as they call themselves, is the most astounding assemblage of helicopter aviation skill and incredible courage ever seen in the history of the planet. Drawing the finest rotary wing aviators from all the services, but primarily Army, under Army command, these guys now provide all the helicopter aviation support for special
operations forces of all the services, under the unified Joint Special Operations Command. Merely their unclassified exploits will be the source of myth and legend for generations to come.
While Ol’ Weird had no direct role in the creation of the Night Stalkers, he always felt a sense of paternity for those guys. They were born out of fanatical arrogance, utter naïveté, and reprehensible careerism. Lot of fine men died to teach that lesson.