In the 1970’s a new form of warfare was emerging: international terrorism. Two counter-terrorist missions that America initially found itself unable to cope with were situations in which a terrorist barricaded himself inside a structure with hostages or when hostages were taken inside a tubular vehicle such as an airplane. While the Army’s premier counter-terrorist unit, Delta Force, was being stood up, another Special Forces unit called Blue Light was created by 5th Special Forces Group to fill the gap until Colonel Charlie Beckwith had Delta ready to go.
“At the time, the thing everyone was concerned with was hijacked airplanes and barricaded hostage situations,” a member of Blue Light said. These were tubular targets, which include buses, the type that the National Command Authorities (POTUS and SECDEF) were the most concerned about. “Because we were so focused in Blue Light on the most likely primary threat, tubular targets and hostage barricade, that we didn’t get into the other mission profiles.”
Blue Light participated in a number of major training exercises that were run by the REDCOM staff in conjunction with the Ranger battalions. These were called CT-EDREs (Counter Terrorism- Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises). These training missions took place across America, some of them including multiple objectives within the target area, but all of them including an aircraft takedown because this was the biggest terrorist threat facing America at the time—or at least this was the perception of policy-makers.
The basic template used was for a Ranger battalion to static-line parachute into the area of operations and silently form a security cordon around the target aircraft. Then, a Blue Light team would conduct a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) free-fall jump and land inside the security perimeter created by the Rangers.
General Hennessey, the REDCOM commander, had given his staff a directive to put together a comprehensive study of all aircraft hijackings, focusing particularly on the PLO’s mass aircraft hijacking in 1970. Another case study was the French Foreign Legion and Belgian Para-Commando rescue mission undertaken in Zaire in May of 1978, in which 2,250 expats were evacuated during the course of a seven-day gun battle.
In February of the same year, PLO terrorists hijacked a plane in Cyprus. Egyptian commandos attempted to storm the plane, only to come under fire from the Cypriot National Guard. REDCOM’s analysis was that, “Egyptian emotions overcame logic and good planning,” and that Cypriot authorities were sympathetic to the PLO to the point that they quietly moved their National Guard into a concealed position to ambush the Egyptians if they attempted to intervene (Lenahan, 12). The tail number of the aircraft was 777, which became the numbered designation of the counterterrorism unit subsequently created by the Egyptian military.
One of the CT-EDREs took place in Indian Springs, Nevada, where Mark Boyatt had his men execute the first HALO mass tactical jump, meaning he put a large group of 25 free-fall jumpers off the ramp of a C-130 at once. When preparing for the exercise, one Special Forces soldier expressed skepticism, saying, “This will never work.”
5th Special Forces Group commander Colonel Mountel simply smiled at him and replied, “Want to bet money?”
Mountel had supreme confidence in his Green Berets, placing a special trust in them which, in turn, inspired a lot of loyalty in his men.
Second Ranger Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Wayne Downing, jumped into the exercise first. Moving quietly through the night, the Rangers walked several miles before forming a donut-shaped security perimeter around the target aircraft. The 2/75 Rangers showed a lot of stamina, one of them even moving to the target area with a broken leg. The 25-man Blue Light element then jumped in, guiding their MC-3 parachutes inside the security position before taking down the aircraft. They jumped wearing tennis shoes, since that was the preferred type of footwear for climbing up on the wings of an airplane without sliding around or making too much noise. In most cases, an actual Boeing 727 or 737 was used as a training aid, so no explosive breaches were permitted—not that those techniques had even been developed yet.
With RAM drop zone right outside the Blue Light compound back at Mott Lake, the Special Forces soldiers were particularly adept at free-fall jumps, contradicting in action the widespread belief at the time that HALO jumps were an unreliable insertion technique because it was difficult to attain a tight grouping of jumpers or land on a small drop zone.
Another training mission occurred on a small Hawaiian island, in which Blue Light air-landed on the runway, and then walked overland to where terrorist role players were holding hostages on board a 707 aircraft in the hangar. The airplane actually belonged to Pacific Command. Blue Light came up to the fuselage with a ladder, infiltrated into the rear of the aircraft, and quickly captured it. One of the sergeants then activated the emergency inflatable evacuation chutes at the door for them to make the exfiltration, sliding down to the ground.
Meanwhile, Delta Force was standing up their own capabilities.
“We view aircraft take downs as nothing more than a linear target on wheels,” Delta Force Sergeant Major Mike Vining said. “We went to experts and they taught us about aircraft systems, we learn the various airport jobs, baggage handling, refueling, emptying the toilets, restocking the aircraft, and so on so we could pass as a worker.” Delta snipers also learned how to shoot through the glass windows of a airplane cockpit.
At Delta, they were often seeking advice from the foreign units who had more experience in counter-terrorism.
“From my observations there was no counter-terrorist forces that were totally complete at the time. The concept was hostage rescue units,” a former Delta Squadron Commander told SOFREP. “Counter-terrorism was the label the unit was formed under but initially there was no idea that we were formed to track them [terrorists] down and kill them in their beds. GSG-9, SAS, and GIGN had some experience formed based on past terrorist actions and active groups such as the Red Army Faction, the PLO at the Munich Olympics, and we got help from them and other organizations. We attended training at special schools and gained access to technical specialists and applied what we learned to what we developed internally,” Jim (not his real name) said.
“A lot of it was on the fly. Target analysis, mission analysis, integration of intelligence and an understanding from the beginning that you had to have a stand-alone intel and analysis capability to that can deploy to a crisis site,” Jim said, which dovetails with Beckwith’s views. “I had learned that from the SAS. They taught me if I was going to do something unique, something very dangerous, then I better have all my own horses. When your life and those of your people are the stakes, you don’t want to have to depend on strangers” (Beckwith, 77).
“No one, including our intelligence agencies had organizations with the specific capabilities we developed,” Jim said about the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
In July of 1978, Major L.H. “Bucky” Burruss divided his Delta Force Squadron in half at the assembly area. Bucky had served in Mike Force during Vietnam and had also attended SAS selection at Beckwith’s request (Burruss, 252). First Troop moved out to take down an aircraft while Second Troop was assigned to breach a building and rescue hostages being held by “terrorists” inside. There was a lot riding on this one as this was Delta Force’s final validation exercise. Both targets were hit around 4 AM on Camp Mackall.
Approaching from the tail end of the decommissioned National Guard AC-121, first troop silently moved up to the two hatches they had decided to breach. “Padded ladders were softly laid on the fuselage. Two hatches had been selected. In the time it takes to suck in your breath, both doors were blown and the plane taken” (Beckwith, 160). Meanwhile, Second Troop breached the windows of their target building, clearing away the glass with steel pipes, and flooded the structure with operators. “Within seven seconds the terrorists had been taken out and the hostages freed” (Beckwith, 160).
Although there were some hiccups with the validation, recall that the Army had no idea how to evaluate counter-terrorist operations at this time, Delta passed the test receiving high praise from General Mackmull and General Meyer, the later being the deputy chief of staff of operations and plans for the Army.
“Blue Light seemed now, after our evaluation, to be redundant. Delta Force had filled the gap and we could be put on alert. If anything went down, we were ready to handle it” (Beckwith, 163). “General Meyer agreed and Blue Light was deactivated shortly thereafter” (Lenahan, 16).
Today, aircraft hijackings are seen by many as passe, a tactic of the past. However, others believe that different terrorist organizations evolved at different times and under different circumstances, meaning that they are likely to employ different tactics. Ruling out the possibility that America won’t face aircraft hijackings in the future would be a dangerous assumption. Thanks to Colonel Beckwith and Colonel Mountel, America has a force that can respond to such threats as needed.