A Night to Remember: A CCT Performed Secret Mission To Desert One Iranian Landing Site
Before a C-130 or a helicopter ever touched down in the Dasht-e-Kavir, Iran’s Great Salt Desert as part of a U.S. force to rescue 53 hostages in Iran, an Air Force Combat Controller had been there and back.
Maj. John Carney, the lead Combat Controller for Operation Eagle Claw, secretly performed a reconnaissance mission to “pave the way” for the Desert One rescue mission.
In March 1980, Carney, nicknamed “The Coach” because he spent eight years as an assistant football coach at the Air Force Academy, was “volunteered” to check out the proposed landing site.
“I remember Charlie Beckwith [the commander of the Army Special Forces team that was to perform the rescue at the American Embassy in Tehran] volunteered me at a meeting in North Carolina,” recalled Carney. “He said, ‘We need a set of eyeballs on that site, and Carney ought to go.’”
Not too long after that meeting, Carney flew from Charleston, S.C., to Athens, Greece, where he met up with his CIA transportation. In a small aircraft, Carney and two CIA pilots flew to Rome and then to Oman.
On April Fools’ Day, Carney — clad in black Levi’s, a black shirt and black cap — was secretly slipped into Iran to survey the Desert One landing site. The site would be a pivotal forward staging area for the rescue mission.
Despite the stakes and the circumstances, Carney said, “I was damn glad to get out of that airplane when we landed.”
Their plane was a decent size for three people, but not when they’re sharing it with a fuel bladder and a fold-up motorcycle. The motorcycle was his ground transportation.
Later Carney would lead a six-man controller team into Desert One and witness the accident that claimed eight American servicemen’s lives. But before any of that transpired, Carney had to approve the site as a landing strip for the operation.
Carney’s mission was to install runway lights, take core samples and perform several other tasks on the ground. His escorts were two CIA operatives who did this type of thing for a living.
He’d have one hour on the ground before the airplane left.
“It was the shortest hour of my life,” said the now-retired colonel. “I had so much to do and so little time to do it, I didn’t really think about anything but getting the job done.”
The landing site was next to a road. Carney would use the road to set up the landing strip. He would march off a “box-and-one” landing strip. The corners of the box, where he would bury the lights, were 90 feet wide by 300 feet. Then the “one” light would be centered on the box and placed 3,000 feet in front. The concept: land in the box and stop before the “one.”
“As a football coach, marching off yards was easy,” he said. What was hard was the ground. “I had to use a K-bar [knife] to chip away the ground to bury the lights.”
After setting up the airfield, Carney went back to check his work. He discovered his escorts landed in a different spot than they had discussed. Hence, the road, his only orientation point, wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
One hour. After that his escorts were out of there.
“There wasn’t time to go back, and I wasn’t missing that plane out,” Carney said.
If he missed the plane, he had two options to get home. One was to walk. The other was to use the Fulton recovery system. The system was an ingenious, albeit dangerous, recovery device. The person needing rescuing puts on a harness — attached to a wire, attached to a balloon. The balloon goes up and then a specially equipped MC-130 swoops in, snags the wire, and whisks the person away.
Carney didn’t fear being in Iran in the middle of the night, but he was afraid of the Fulton “thing.”
“I was getting on that plane,” he reiterated.
In his hour on the ground, four vehicles drove past.
“It was surprising,” Carney said of the vehicles. “All I could do was hit the dirt. There’s not a whole lot of places to hide in a desert.”
Carney had people counting on him for his special mission.
“I was praying that all would go well for John — that he would return safely with a good report on Desert One,” wrote retired Col. James Kyle in his book, “The Guts to Try.” Kyle was one of the lead planners and the on-scene commander at Desert One. “One thing I was sure of — if anybody could do it, John could.”
Out And Back
Carney made it out of Desert One, only to return 23 days later with the rescue force.
When he left Iran the first time, he was worried about the landing lights. But, after jetting back to America on the Concorde, Carney said, “When I saw the satellite imagery, it was a perfect diamond-and-one.”
Not quite the plan, but it worked.
“I was happy to see those lights come on,” said retired Col. Bob Brenci, who flew the lead C-130 into Desert One. He was relying on Carney’s lights to help him land in the Iranian Desert. They worked. He landed.
“He is a true American hero,” Brenci said about Carney. “Crazy, but a hero.”
Crazy, maybe, but Carney said he’s no hero.
“I was just doing what needed to be done,” Carney said.
Today, Carney is the president of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation in Tampa, Fla., a nonprofit organization that helps children who have lost a parent in a special operations mission or training accident.
At 61, his hair is a little gray, but he still looks like he could jump out of planes and take down airfields. The former controller has a presence about him.
“He’s a natural leader with tremendous charisma,” said Chief Master Sgt. Rex Wollmann, the superintendent of the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron at McChord Air Force Base, Wash. Wollmann has known Carney for more than 21 years. Their first mission together was Desert One. “He’s the kind of guy you’d follow anywhere,” Wollmann said of his former boss.
“Men like Carney are worth a hundred planes or ships,” Kyle said.
Coach went on to participate in operations in Panama, Grenada, the Persian Gulf War and others he can’t talk about. But, he’ll always remember his “volunteer” reconnaissance mission to Iran.
“It was the shortest hour of my life,” he said.