After the tragedy that unfolded at Desert One, the attempted Delta Force rescue of American hostages held in Iran in 1980, the Pentagon was forced back to the drawing board. While it is easy to take for granted the Special Operations infrastructure that we have today, thirty years ago the military was still struggling in a Post-Vietnam War climate and engaged in much trail and error in trying to respond to the specter of terrorism.
One of big lessons learned from Desert One was that Special Operations forces needed dedicated aircraft to carry and otherwise support the “shooters” of Delta and other Special Operations units. Stood up at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, most people are familiar with Task Force 160th, the amazingly talented Special Operations pilots who put Rangers, Special Forces, SEAL Team Six, and Delta Force shooters exactly where they need to be, plus or minus thirty seconds as the pilots are quick to tell you. Far fewer people are aware of a program stood up two months prior to 160th, on March 2nd 1981.
Seaspray was a joint venture between the CIA and the Army, one of many projects stood up for the second Iran hostage rescue mission which went into the planning phase immediately after the failure of Desert One. Due to the legalese used in Executive Order 12036, only the CIA could perform covert operations. That said, the CIA had only provided a single reconnaissance flight prior to Desert One and serious rifts had developed between the Agency and the Pentagon as Desert One progressed towards disaster. It was a marriage of convenience, perhaps comparable to that of MACV-SOG during Vietnam, in which each party brought something to the table.
While TF 160th would fly Direct Action combat operations for US Special Operations units, Seapray would fly covert operations in which the presence of the United States was to remain undetected. “We provided instant clandestine aviation to anyone and anywhere worldwide,” according to a former member of Seaspray.
Helicopters were purchased completely outside the normal Army procurement process, their aircraft were in the black and off the books, registered through civilian cut-outs. Only ten pilots were specially selected from the Army to serve in Seaspray when the unit was stood up in ’81, the black aviation outfit having their pick of the best from both the CIA and the Army. The unit’s first commander was Lieutenant Colonel Vasken Moomjian. Stationed at Ft. Eustis Virgina, they later set up a base in Tampa to support Central American operations.
“Seaspray went on to conduct some of the most sensitive covert missions ever undertaken by the US Army. It supported Signal Intelligence operations, secretly transported foreign leaders, ferried Delta soldiers and worked extensively with other counter-terrorism forces in exercises and rescue operations.”
The unit’s inventory included Cessnas, Beechcraft King Airs, and highly modified Hughes 500MD helicopters. These helicopters were day/night capable with so-called “people pods” for transporting assaulters like on today’s Little Bird helicopters, and specialized silencers on the tail rotors to decrease noise. The 500MD’s also incorporated a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system for scanning the ground for targets or landing sites. That said, my understanding is that Seaspray helicopters do not look military at all but were marked up like civilian aircraft.
Ultimately, TF 160th helped provide cover for action for the Seaspray program as the jet black Chinooks, Blackhawks, and Little Birds of 160th drew the attention of the press and kept it well away from covert actions of Seaspray.