Twenty six years ago today, on April 24, 1980, US President Jimmy Carter decided to launch a rescue mission using the Delta Force to bring back home the US hostages who were held captive in the US Embassy in Teheran. The attempt to rescue the hostages failed and Eagle Claw (that was the name of the mission) ended in a complete debacle at Desert One point. The tragedy left eight soldiers dead and many others injured. They are in our prayers on this day. The Atlantic this month has a very interesting (interactive) article on the failed mission (see here and here for the Wikipedia entry).
It describes what people in the military call: “the inevitability of the unexpected.” Eagle Claw is an illustration of the complexity involved in planning such a large one-off mission and how even the best trained soldiers always face uncertainty. Here are some interesting points illustrating the (radical) uncertainty problem that the soldiers faced in that mission:
- The C-130 planes that flew from Masirah in Oman into Desert One in Iran (see interactive map), encountered “curious milky patches in the night sky.” These patches were made of suspended dust (haboob). These clouds of dust were huge, 100 miles long for one of them. They made the trip considerably more difficult for the planes but also for the Sea-Stallions helicopters that flew from the USS Nimitz stationed in the Gulf of Oman. Planes and helicopters flew very low and thus needed as much visibility as possible. One of the helicopters had to return and the others almost didn’t make it. The haboobs also accounted for the damages to the helicopters, which eventually led to the mission abort. According to the article, no one seemed to expect them.
- As the first plane landed in Desert One, a remote place in the mountains, a bus full of poor Iranian passengers traveling through the night, was crossing the field chosen for landing. Again, no one expected such an event to happen. The soldiers stopped the bus and held its passengers as hostages. While they were not a threat, they had to be taken care of, which was time-consuming for the soldiers.
- A team had checked the quality of the landing site three weeks prior. However, on the day of the operation, it was not a hard-packed surface anymore, as a layer of fine sand (ankle-deep in some places) was covering it. This made taxiing for the planes difficult and created dust storms with the planes’ propellers and the helicopters’ rotors. This also contributed to the mission abort.
While a military mission is not an entrepreneurial endeavor guided by monetary profit signals, the Eagle Claw debacle shows how uncertain the future can be, even when the best trained individuals try to plan it. As in many entrepreneurial ventures, once the opportunity has been recognized, the main difficulty lies in doing it for the first time: to boldly go where no man has gone before.