Russ Tharp has a special affinity for the military transport that has joined the squadron of historic exhibits at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte – he was at its controls the night in 1980 when it was used in the failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran.
He was there when the mission unraveled in the swirling dust. When the secret desert rendezvous point was unexpectedly breached by smugglers and then a busload of civilians. When a helicopter crashed into another plane. And finally when Tharp rammed the C-130 into a roadbed on takeoff.
That chaotic chain of deadly accidents on April 24, 1980, doomed Mission Eagle Claw, which was to be a two-day commando operation aimed at freeing 52 Americans held by militants at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Its spectacular failure was the impetus for restructuring and improving the military’s special operations units, like those used in the raid against Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Tharp’s job was to fly the C-130, nicknamed Republic 5 for the mission, to the makeshift desert landing strip. It carried military gear and two huge fuel bladders containing thousands of gallons that were to refuel helicopters going on toward Tehran.
“It was like walking on a waterbed,” Tharp said Friday, showing off the space the fuel bags occupied in the cavernous belly of the aircraft.
After they were put aboard, Tharp said, his loadmaster calculated the plane was over its 175,000-pound cargo limit.
“He said, ‘I just went over 190,000 pounds, and I’m just going to quit counting,’” Tharp said.
Mission begins in darkness
Tharp flew low from Oman, about 500 feet, to avoid Iranian radar along the coast.
At the clandestine landing site, a crew set up infrared beacons to outline a makeshift runway for the C-130s. It was near a little-used road, but as Tharp and other pilots drew near, two trucks driven by gasoline smugglers came up. Commandos from Fort Bragg fired an anti-tank round into one of them, creating a fire visible for at least 15 miles, but the second truck got away.
Then a busload of civilians came down the road. Commandos stopped the bus, and planned to take the riders back to their base in Oman so they couldn’t tip off the authorities had the mission gone forward.
Using night-vision goggles to find the infrared beacons, the pilots were disoriented by the truck’s flaming wreckage. Blowing sand also made visibility difficult, but the aircraft got down.
Six helicopters were needed for the raid, and eight were sent. Three malfunctioned, so the mission was aborted. Then one chopper, heavy with fuel, lifted off and clipped the tail of one of the C-130s, Tharp said, crashing into the top of the plane with a searing explosion that killed eight.
“So many things happened one never expected,” said Tharp, in Charlotte for a reunion Saturday night with others who were on the mission.
Confusion over runway
Republic 5 was cleared to take off, but Tharp couldn’t see the runway indicators clearly in the dust. He caught sight of some lights, aimed his aircraft toward them, and the C-130 began its run.
Tharp realized he’d seen the wrong lights when the road berm, elevated a few feet above the desert floor, loomed into view. He pulled back the yoke to bring up the plane’s nose, and it barely cleared the roadside.
Then came a grinding jolt as the underbelly of the plane scraped along the roadbed and the plane thumped down on the other side. Antennas beneath the fuselage were torn out by the impact, but Tharp kept pouring on the power. Republic 5 bounced along the hard-packed desert, then clawed into the sky.
A minute later a bright warning light caught Tharp’s attention. Engine one, on the left side, was drooling oil. Apparently the impact had broken a seal. Tharp feathered it and kept going on three engines.
In all, it was a 12-hour mission for Republic 5. Tharp never left his seat.
Secret missions continued
Tharp, who grew up in Yale, Okla., and now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., served 21 years in the Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1990 after a career that included years in Special Forces. Republic 5, built in 1962, is only now retiring and will be on semi-permanent loan to the air museum at Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Republic 5 spent most of its military service in secret missions, beginning as an airborne command and control center over Vietnam, and going on to serve in Grenada, both invasions of Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. And a few more assignments that aren’t in the history books.
“Most are still classified, and we’ll probably never know what they were,” said Shawn Dorsch, president of the Carolinas Aviation Museum.
Dorsch said the aircraft is appropriate for the Charlotte museum because of the C-130 N.C. Air National Guard fleet that operates from Charlotte Douglas, and because North Carolina is home to many of the nation’s special forces units.
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