Iran Plans to Use Captured American Copter Against U.S.
RH-53D left behind by U.S. commandos being restored by Tehran
On April 24 and 25, 1980, a U.S. Special Operations task force infiltrated Iran aboard C-130 transports and RH-53D helicopters, aiming to rescue 52 American hostages being held by Tehran since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
Operation Eagle Claw was a disaster. Sand damaged the helicopters and blocked the pilots’ views and, during refueling at a desert stopover, an RH-53D struck a parked C-130, killing eight people. The survivors abandoned five RH-53Ds in the desert as they fled aboard the C-130s.
Thirty-four years later, one of the RH-53Ds is being rebuilt by Iran’s incredibly resourceful aerospace industry for a second life as a minesweeper and commando transport in Iran’s bizarre, geriatric air arm, which is the flying, front-line equivalent of an aviation museum.
The RH-53D’s resurrection is a window into the Iran’s desperate yet resourceful preparations for possible war with a vastly more powerful United States. It’s also a weirdly compelling tale of circular military history.
Operation Eagle Claw was far too complex for the Special Operations Forces of the day. With no unifying Special Operations Command to combine separate commando forces in the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines and to argue for specialized equipment, the rescue force for Iran was a kludge of Navy RH-53D minesweepers flown by Marine aviators plus Air Force C-130s carrying 120 Army Special Forces troops.
Recon troops had scouted out the refueling point in Iran where the six RH-53Ds—eight set out from the flattop USS Nimitz but two had to abort—and seven C-130s would stop over on their way to Tehran. But sand storms after the recon added a thick coating of dust. As one RH-53D maneuvered behind an idling C-130 in order to take fuel from the transport, the copter pilot was disoriented by swirling dust and lurched his craft forward, colliding with the C-130.
The explosion killed five airmen on the transport and three Marines in the RH-53D. Amid the fire, smoke and dust, commanders called off the mission. The copter crews piled into the C-130s, leaving their RH-53Ds to the Iranians.
In fact, Iran already possessed six of the Sikorsky-built RH-53Ds, having purchased them from the U.S. government before the 1979 revolution.
Twenty-one tons fully loaded, the twin-engine RH-53D is among the world’s biggest and most powerful helicopters. The RH-53D’s 8,000 horsepower allows it to drag minesweeping sleds. Able to fly hundreds of miles while carrying three dozen soldiers and their gear, the RH-53D is equally useful as a transport—hence its selection for Eagle Claw.
Like the Americans in 1980, Iran uses the RH-53D to carry commandos into battle, meaning it’s potentially one of Tehran’s most important aircraft in any confrontation with U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
But the giant copter is devilishly complex. U.S. sanctions after 1979 deprived Iran of Sikorsky’s spare parts. But the Eagle Claw disaster partially solved the parts problem, depositing five intact RH-53Ds in the Iranian desert. Tehran’s agents dragged the abandoned rotorcraft to the helibase at the southern coastal city of Bandar Abbas and stripped them of parts to keep the original six aircraft flying.
But the Iranian RH-53Ds quickly ate through these fresh parts. By 1988, just a single RH-53D was still functional and continuing sanctions meant Tehran had few options for repairing the others—or for replacing the giant copters. The Iranians found a solution in Laura Wang-Woodford, a U.S. citizen who was the director of Monarch Aviation, an importer and exporter based in Singapore.
Between January 1998 and December 2007, Wang-Woodford “exported controlled U.S. aircraft parts from the United States to Monarch and Jungda in Singapore and Malaysia and then re-exported those items to companies in Tehran, Iran, without obtaining the required U.S. government licenses,” according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The Justice Department said Wang-Woodford sold Iran parts for Boeing-made CH-47 helicopters, but according to Combat Aircraft reporter Babak Taghvaee, a Singaporean middleman sent Iran RH-53D parts between 2006 and 2008. Based on this claim, it seems Wang-Woodford was also dealing in Sikorsky components.
U.S. authorities arrested Wang-Woodford at San Francisco International Airport in 2007 and a judge sentenced her to four years in prison. With the parts she apparently supplied, Iran was able to restore its grounded RH-53Ds, bringing the fleet back up to six working machines.
And there were apparently enough components to also rebuild at least one of the stripped hulks of the Eagle Claw RH-53Ds, still in storage in Bandar Abbas. Taghvaee claimed that engineers would complete the former American copter this year. It’s unclear what will become of the four other RH-53Ds U.S. forces left behind in 1980—or whether the airframes are still intact enough to make restoration worthwhile.
Iran offered a glimpse of its RH-53D war scheme in December 2011, when according to Taghvaee, one of the giant copters carried navy rangers from Jask naval station as part of the Velayat 90 war game. If Iran and the U.S. ever go to war for real, Tehran could strike at American forces with the very same commando-carrying rotorcraft that America sent against Iran 34 years ago.