The year is 1970. Two specially modified Lockheed MC-130 U.S. Air Force planes have just taken off from a Thai airbase en route to a Vietnamese prison camp. These craft are part of Operation Ivory Coast – an audacious attempt to rescue 61 American prisoners of war from the communists. And to aid the raid, the planes are bristling with top-secret equipment… but there’s a reason why the government has kept them under wraps.
In fact, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) had several of the MC-130Es in its inventory. To create the MC-130E, you see, Lockheed had made modifications to the basic C-130 Hercules – a four-engined turboprop machine originally designed to carry cargo and troops. New military and civilian versions of this plane have been created ever since, too – with some versions of the C-130 still in service today.
Lockheed had actually started adapting the standard Hercules aircraft in the mid-1960s so that variants of the plane could be used in highly clandestine U.S. Air Force missions. The modified versions of the C-130 have thereafter been used for tasks such as retrieving troops, giving supplies to secret operations and air-refueling of combat craft.
Lockheed Air Services started work on the first of the MC-130 special aircraft at its Ontario, California, facility in December 1964. This first modified Hercules was given the moniker “Combat Talon,” and two testbed machines were built in conditions of strict secrecy. The developers even went as far as to remove identifying serial numbers from the planes.
The U.S. Air Force needed this new model in order to better carry out covert operations in Vietnam. In particular, the top brass wanted a craft that could operate at low altitudes during special missions after another plane – the Fairchild C-123 Provider – had failed to perform to expectations.
Over the years, in fact, AFSOC has used a variety of different planes – such as the CV-22 Osprey. The CV-22 is based on the innovative V-22 tilt-rotor machine and combines a short take-off ability with the option to use the rotors so that the craft ascends in a vertical manner. In this way, it is much like a helicopter.
The CV-22 Osprey was developed in response to the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. That mission involved an attempt to rescue 52 American Embassy staff who were being held captive by Iranian militants in Tehran. Eagle Claw ultimately ended in the deaths of eight servicemen and the hostages remaining firmly in the clutches of the Iranians.
The Air Force then took delivery of its first CV-22 in 2006, with the plane subsequently used in operations in Mali, Iraq and South Sudan. An especially dangerous mission came in 2014 when CV-22s transported Delta Force commandos en route to rescue Islamic State hostages in Syria. Yet while the hostages had been moved to a new location, the Delta Force men nevertheless succeeded in killing a number of IS fighters. And while one Black Hawk pilot was wounded in the leg during the operation, he was the only American casualty.
Another aircraft typically utilized during special ops missions is the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter – a customized variant of the Black Hawk widely used by the U.S. Army. The Pave Hawk, however, has special high-tech navigational equipment and communications systems. And the chopper is generally used during missions both in order to get soldiers to their attack locations and to extract them safely.
For example, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) made heavy use of the Pave Hawk in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. Back then, models of the helicopter flew on missions to locate and save stranded Air Force personnel. The chopper also took part in operations to insert Navy SEALs into Kuwait prior to the full invasion of the country.
But let’s turn our focus back to the Lockheed MC-130E plane. As mentioned earlier, this was a modified version of the standard USAF workhorse, the C-130 Hercules. And Lockheed had been driven to create the Hercules after the Korean War left defense chiefs convinced that new all-purpose transport planes were now vital for combat.
Yes, aircraft such as the C-47 Skytrain and the Curtiss C-46 Commando – both of which had seen much action during the Second World War – were regarded as being no longer up to scratch for modern warfare. So in 1951 the Air Force issued a specification and invited various aircraft manufacturers to rise to the challenge. This new spec called for a plane capable of carrying 72 soldiers or 64 parachutists and with a ramped cargo door to the rear.
Five companies then submitted designs for the new aircraft, and, as we know, Lockheed was the successful bidder. Then, in 1954, the first prototype embarked on a test flight. The initial C-130 took off from Lockheed’s Burbank, California, factory and made the 61-minute journey to Edwards Air Force Base in southern California.
The USAF subsequently took delivery of its first C-130s in December 1956, with the planes going on to see active service in Laos and Vietnam in 1964. Most notably, C-130s flew missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail – a channel through which supplies and soldiers were transported from North Vietnam to the south of the country. And as we heard earlier, it was the Vietnam War that prompted the USAF to order a specialized plane for dangerous low-altitude missions.
Thus, the MC-130E, or Combat Talon I, was born. And the first difference you’d likely notice between the standard C-130 and the Combat Talon I is the newer model’s exaggeratedly bulbous nose. While this feature hardly improves the plane’s looks, it serves an important purpose: all manner of high-tech navigational gear is stowed there.
Nine crew members can also be accommodated on the Combat Talon I, which boasts a cruising speed of 300 mph and stretches to over 100 feet long. A quartet of Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines power each craft. And, interestingly, early models were finished with reflective dark green and black paint – a color scheme that earned these planes the moniker “Blackbirds.”
The navigational equipment that the MC-130E possesses enables the plane to fly at altitudes of under 250 feet and through weather that would be too severe for other aircraft to tackle. Both of those qualities are essential for the kind of complex and dangerous Special Forces operations for which the Combat Talon I was specifically designed.
Some of the Combat Talons were also equipped with extraordinary devices that could have come straight out of a James Bond film. In fact, the technology actually was glimpsed in the Bond movie Thunderball, which was released in 1965. In Thunderball, however, the apparatus was attached to a different plane: a B-17 Flying Fortress.
The equipment in question was the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS) – also known as Skyhook. Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. had evolved Skyhook for the CIA during the 1950s, with the tech allowing a flying plane to capture a load on the ground using a cable and subsequently winch the item aboard.
What’s truly startling about Skyhook, however, is that it could also be used to pluck live humans from the ground before hauling them onto the plane through the rear-facing cargo door. In cases of human retrieval, then, the system worked by first sending a recovery kit from the plane to the area where the pickup was to occur.
A soldier on the ground would then unpack the recovery kit, which typically consisted of a special set of overalls, a harness, 500 feet of rope and a balloon with a canister of helium for inflation. The trooper would don the overalls and harness, with the latter subsequently being secured to one end of the rope.
All that remained was to inflate the balloon – which was designed not to lift the soldier off the ground but to elevate the rope towards the sky. Finally, the Skyhook instructions stipulated that a soldier should sit on the floor with his arms folded and with his back facing against any gusts of wind.
Now it was up to the specially equipped Combat Talon to play its part in the elaborate choreography of this extraordinary procedure. The plane was fitted with two “horns” protruding from its nose that formed the shape of the letter “V” – with the apex of the “V” attached to the nose. The pilot of the craft would aim for the orange flag fastened to the cable that the soldier was wearing.
And if the pilot reached the soldier successfully, the cable would be captured by the horns – thus yanking the man off the ground and into the air. Yet while the sensation of the take-off was sudden, it was said to produce less strain than that felt by a descending paratrooper when his chute was released.
An MC-130E with the Skyhook was fitted with wires running from the plane’s nose to the wingtips in order to stop the pick-up line from getting caught on the propellers. Then, once the man on the ground had been captured, he would extend his arms and legs to prevent spinning, and a system of cables and pulleys would ensure that he glided along to the rear of the plane. After that, personnel on board the plane could winch him in.
It’s difficult to ascertain how often the Skyhook system was actually used in active service – it would have been involved in some top-secret missions, after all. But we do know of one serious accident during a training mission in Germany in 1982. The man involved was lifted from the ground using Skyhook but then dropped again due to equipment failure. And unfortunately, he did not survive the incident.
Owing to that tragedy, Skyhook was subsequently put on ice – at least, when it came to human cargo. And, eventually, the system was scrapped altogether in 1998. But, of course, the Combat Talon I has been involved in plenty of other action that didn’t require the use of Skyhook.
The Combat Talon I was first put into operation, for example, during the Vietnam War. Six crews were stationed at South Vietnam’s Nha Trang Air Base under a mission called Combat Spear. Other crews were then sent to Europe as part of Combat Arrow, while those who were transported to the U.S. fell under Combat Knife. And the fliers in Vietnam came under the auspices of the intensely secretive Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group.
Plus, as already mentioned, Combat Talon I planes played a part in Operation Ivory Coast – the mission to pick up American prisoners of war. Intelligence indicated that 61 American military personnel were imprisoned at the Sơn Tây camp, which lay just 23 miles to the west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
The last – and most crucial – part of Operation Ivory Coast was Operation Kingpin. In this mission, units of Special Forces troops were to be transported to the camp aboard helicopters. These 56 men – all armed to the teeth – would be escorted by two Combat Talons.
With their arrays of advanced navigational aids, the Combat Talons would then guide the Special Forces’ helicopters to their target. Overall, in fact, a total of 116 aircraft were utilized during the operation, and the Combat Talons guided those directly involved in the assault along a six-mile wide corridor towards their targets.
It was up to one of the Combat Talons – codenamed Cherry 01 – to also issue the final order to attack. Dropping four flares on the prison camp, Cherry 01 gave the code that signaled the start of the attack: “Alpha, Alpha, Alpha.” The plane then released a napalm charge as a means by which to mark a target for the fighter aircraft in the formation.
Dramatically, the choppers then landed, and the Special Forces jumped out, with one soldier talking through a loudspeaker to announce their arrival to the American prisoners. As the troops made a thorough search of the prison camp, though, it emerged that there were no Americans there. The captives had, in fact, been moved elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the U.S. soldiers slaughtered a number of Vietnamese prison guards. And there were a couple of American casualties in the process, too, with one Special Forces man receiving a leg injury during the initial firefight. A flight engineer on one of the helicopters also suffered a blow when a fire extinguisher fell on him and broke his ankle.
It later emerged that the Vietnamese had moved their American prisoners – of whom there were in fact 65 – the previous July. Yet although the objective of the operation had been unmet, Ivory Coast was still deemed a success in terms of its execution. Not only that, but the high-tech navigational equipment on board the Combat Talons had proved its worth.
The next significant operation for the Combat Talons came in the shape of Eagle Claw – the mission to safely apprehend 53 American Embassy personnel in Iran. Militants had seized the diplomats and were holding them hostage in their embassy in Tehran. The attempt to liberate the captives was mounted by Special Forces in April 1980.
Four Combat Talons were thus assigned as guides for the other aircraft flying into Iran. Some Combat Talon crew members also piloted another Hercules variant, the EC-130E, to deliver fuel for the helicopters on this extremely risky mission. And as history tells us, Eagle Claw didn’t go as hoped.
The operation ended in disaster, in fact, with just five of the apportioned eight choppers emerging in operational order. Then, after the mission had been called off, a further helicopter smashed into a U.S. aircraft, leading to eight men losing their lives. Yet the Combat Talons had fulfilled their part of the mission, and their operators shouldered no part of the blame for Eagle Claw’s failings.
Eventually, though, the original Combat Talons were replaced by an updated model: the Combat Talon II. This new variant first saw action in Afghanistan in 2001, when Combat Talon II planes inserted various Special Forces formations into hostile areas of the country. The Combat Talon IIs also flew into Afghanistan from Turkey on regular missions to supply combat troops on the ground, with the aircraft proving successful in flying over fiendishly difficult terrain.
And the Combat Talon’s story is far from over. You see, there’s since been another updated version of the plane – the MC-130J – which went into service in 2011. Yet we may not ever know exactly whether these planes operate as intended – unless the veil of secrecy that surrounds their missions is ultimately pulled back.
Another fascinating story involving a secret mission occurred in September 1985. For a week, researchers led by oceanographer Robert Ballard scoured the seabed, at a depth of some 12,000 feet, using the camera of the remotely controlled submarine craft Argo. Yet the team were beginning to lose hope of finding their target: the wreck of RMS Titanic. Then, however, early in the morning, the scientists started to see traces of debris. And suddenly, they knew that they were close.
We’ll shortly return to the momentous discovery that was made by Ballard’s team – and there’s a truly astonishing revelation to come about the truth behind their mission as well. First, though, let’s delve into the fascinating but tragic story of the RMS Titanic itself.
The building of the Titanic began in March 1909 when work commenced on its keel at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. The ship had been commissioned by the White Star Line – a major player in the heyday of the passenger liner business. And indeed, one of the vessel’s designers, Thomas Andrews, was among those who tragically perished when the ship famously sank.
The Titanic cost the equivalent of about $193 million in today’s money to build and was completed in April 1912. Some 3,000 men had worked on the project, using around three million rivets in the gigantic ocean liner’s construction. Eight shipyard workers had met their ends during the building of the vessel, too.
Then on April 10, 1912, the Titanic – by now berthed at the English port of Southampton – embarked upon its maiden voyage. The ship’s first brief port of call was Cherbourg in France, and this was followed by a second short stop, at the Irish port of Queenstown – today known as Cobh.
After that final docking in Ireland, the ship had an approximate total of 2,224 crew and passengers on board. The Titanic then headed off into the open Atlantic Ocean on a course for its final destination: New York City. But as we know, it would never arrive there.
A short time before midnight on April 14, 1912 – fewer than five days after it had set off from Southampton – the Titanic hit a massive iceberg. The ship was far out to sea, nearly 400 miles from the coast of Newfoundland. And the collision dented the hull, allowing water to flood between the buckled steel plates into five of the vessel’s watertight compartments.
Since the Titanic had been designed to survive up to four, rather than five, of its compartments being flooded, the vessel’s fate was now inevitable. The great ship’s bow started to dip into the icy Atlantic waters. And less than three hours after the collision with the iceberg, the vessel began to split in two. The ocean liner then sank entirely beneath the waves.
The Titanic had been equipped with only sufficient lifeboats for about 50 percent of the crew and passengers on board. What’s more, the loading of the lifeboats was a chaotic affair, with undertrained officers unsure of what they were doing. The resulting death toll? In excess of 1,500 – with men, women and children dying from drowning or exposure to the freezing water.
Another passenger liner, the RMS Carpathia was first on the scene, arriving a little less than two hours after the Titanic had sunk. Mercifully, the liner’s crew managed to rescue around 705 survivors of the terrible calamity. And the Carpathia then sailed to New York, where it was met by a crowd of 40,000 who were anxious to learn news of the disaster.
The U.S. Senate subsequently set up an inquiry to investigate the catastrophe; the British Board of Trade held its own investigation, too. And the two probes came to more or less identical conclusions. There had been too few lifeboats; Captain Smith should have paid more attention to iceberg warnings; and the ship had been steaming at too great a velocity for the conditions. Yet nothing would bring back the 1,500 dead.
Soon after the disaster, people also came forward with plans to recover the sunken ship. Several wealthy families – the Astors and the Guggenheims, to name two – had lost people in the tragedy and were therefore prepared to fund such an attempt. But the shipwreck was far too deep underwater for the diving technology of the day, and the scheme came to nothing.
In any case, no one knew exactly where the shipwreck was located. As the years went by, then, various hare-brained schemes were proposed – and inevitably abandoned. The craziest proposals seem mostly to have been dreamt up in the 1970s. One idea was to pour 180,000 tons of Vaseline into the wreck, which would purportedly float it to the surface. Another plan was to fill the hull with table tennis balls to achieve the same goal.
Needless to say, neither of these bizarre schemes nor others like them came to fruition. And still nobody was in a position to pinpoint the site of the ship in its watery grave, more than 12,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. That was the key point. Any plan to salvage the Titanic would be pointless unless its location in the Atlantic depths were discovered first.
Then in 1977 Robert Ballard – a former U.S. Navy officer who was working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – decided to try and locate the famous wreck. Ballard needed backers for this enterprise, however. And the first group that he approached wanted to turn parts of the wrecked ship into commercial merchandising. This was not to Ballard’s taste.
Ballard found less rapacious backers, though, and in October 1977 he set sail on the Seaprobe. This was a salvage ship owned by the Alcoa Corporation and equipped for deep ocean work. The vessel had a set-up involving a camera fixed to the end of a drill pipe. Unfortunately, however, the pipe fractured, sending more than $500,000 worth of specialist equipment to the bottom of the ocean. The mission was therefore aborted.
The next serious attempt to pinpoint the wreck’s location came in 1980. A Texas oilman called Jack Grimm had the sensible idea of searching for the site by using sonar. To this end, he gifted $330,000 to the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory. And officials there in turn bought sonar equipment with the cash and agreed that Grimm would be able to use it for five years.
Yet although Grimm’s idea of searching using sonar was rational, the description did not necessarily apply to the man himself. Splendidly eccentric might have been nearer the mark. Previous projects that Grimm had pursued included hunting for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and Noah’s Ark. He had not found any of them, mind you. Perhaps, then, he would have better luck with the Titanic.
But perhaps not – since one of Grimm’s methods of locating the wreck was to use his pet monkey, named Titan. The oilman claimed that the monkey could indicate a point on a map where the wreck would be. And by all accounts, the scientists hired to work with Grimm – Dr. William B. Ryan of Columbia University and Dr. Fred Spiess of Scripps Institution of Oceanography – did not see the funny side.
According to Ballard in his later book The Discovery of the Titanic, the scientists told Grimm that he would have to choose: it was them or the monkey. And so apparently, with some reluctance, Grimm agreed to get rid of the primate. The team then set sail on a research ship called the H.J.W. Fay.
The crew subsequently spent three weeks surveying an area of the Atlantic 500 square nautical miles in extent. But the sonar equipment that they used only worked at low resolutions, and they made no definite discovery. The researchers did, however, identify 14 features worthy of further examination.
The team then returned the following year, in 1981, this time aboard a boat called the Gyre. On this occasion, they came equipped with a superior sonar machine, too: the Scripps Deep Tow. But the researchers’ investigation of the 14 objects of interest showed that none of them were connected with the Titanic.
On the final day of the expedition, the team did, however, discover something that might just have been a propeller. And indeed, once the Gyre got back to Boston, Grimm claimed to the media that – on the strength of the possible propeller – he’d found the Titanic. The expedition scientists refused to back him up, though.
Still, undeterred, Grimm returned again, in 1983, this time aboard the ship Robert D. Conrad. The oilman was keen to take a closer examination of the supposed propeller. However, nothing was found on this trip, and it had to be curtailed because of rough seas. It later emerged, though, that the sonar had crossed over the Titanic’s remains but had failed to register them.
At this point, then, Grimm’s efforts to find the wreck of the Titanic came to an end. And yet despite his own previous failure, Robert Ballard had not lost his appetite for the hunt. So it was that in 1985 he returned to the fray with far more technologically advanced equipment – in the shape of the Argo and Jason.
The Argo was an underwater vessel that could operate in the deep ocean while being controlled remotely from the surface. And attached to the Argo was Jason – a sophisticated robot capable of moving across the ocean bed, taking photographs and collecting samples. The images would then be inspected by personnel on board a ship on the surface – in this case the Knorr.
The U.S. Navy even agreed to sponsor the equipment. But the Navy wasn’t, it’s worth noting, particularly interested in finding the Titanic. No, it had its own uses for this highly specialized equipment. We’ll learn more about the Navy’s actual motivation a little later. But back in 1985, Ballard now had some of the best technology available to help in his search for the famous wreck.
It was also in 1985 that Ballard and his team finally and conclusively discovered the wreck of the Titanic more than 12,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic. To do so, Ballard had called in help from France’s national oceanographic organization. The institute possessed, you see, an especially high-definition side-scan sonar. And so Le Suroît, a French research ship equipped with the technology, joined the expedition.
Over a period of five weeks, Le Suroît methodically scanned the 150-square-mile area where the wreckage of the Titanic was thought to be located. Unfortunately, though, the sonar drew a blank – although it later emerged that the boat’s very first scanning run had come within just a few hundred yards of the wreck.
Ballard, meanwhile, switched tactics. He decided that the best way to find the sunken ship was to look for the trail of debris that it had left rather than for the hull itself. And to do this, he would deploy Argo with its camera. After all, although sonar could not tell natural objects apart from ship debris, using Argo’s camera as a remote “eye,” a human could.
Ballard also believed that the stretch of debris that the Titanic would have left would be in the order of at least a mile long – and perhaps more. This would therefore provide something much larger to search for than just the main body of the sunken ship.
Still, this search with human eyes was no trivial task. For one thing, it required the team to spend 24 hours a day monitoring the pictures that were brought back to the surface. But on September 1, 1985, after a week of personnel peering at the monitors, fragments of debris began to become visible. Then, what looked like a boiler, just the same as one of the Titanic’s, came into view.
The very next day, 73 years after the unfortunate ship had sunk, the team found its holy grail: the wreck of the Titanic. The news of the find subsequently sped around the world and caused a sensation. But what hardly anybody knew at the time was that Ballard’s principal mission had not actually been the search for the shipwreck.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2008 – 13 years after the discovery of the wreck – that the true purpose of Ballard’s Atlantic expedition was revealed. As indicated earlier, the U.S. Navy had negligible interest in spending large amounts of money on finding the Titanic. Yet there were other vessels lying at the bottom of this section of the Atlantic Ocean that the Navy was, on the other hand, extremely concerned about.
In the 1960s two U.S. nuclear submarines had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic not all that far from where the Titanic had met its tragic end. In April 1963 the submarine USS Thresher sank with all 129 on board – and it remains the worst submarine disaster ever in terms of loss of life.
Then in May 1968 another nuclear sub, USS Scorpion, disappeared along with all 99 hands on board. A research vessel located parts of Scorpion’s hull five months later. Yet an inquiry could not determine the reason behind the submarine’s loss. The wreckage of Thresher, meanwhile, was discovered not long after the sub had been lost, with the cause of the sinking believed to have been weak pipe joints.
Two decades later, the Navy was, in any case, still anxious to find out more about the sinking of the two submarines. For one thing, there was understandable anxiety about the environmental impact of the nuclear reactors aboard the two vessels. And then there was the suspicion that the Soviets might have had a hand in the demise of the subs. As it turned out, though, Ballard’s team found no evidence of either environmental harm or Soviet involvement.
The deal that the Navy had made with Ballard was that it would pay for four expeditions over four years using the Argo/Jason equipment. Each expedition would be slated to last one month. And if there were spare time at the end of an individual mission, Ballard would be free to use the equipment to search for the Titanic.
In fact, when Ballard found the Titanic in 1985, it was on the second of the four missions that he was slated to undertake for the Navy – with the first assignment having happened the year before. On that 1985 mission, Ballard had actually only been allowed 12 days to hunt for the lost liner. And yet thanks to his previous work on locating the wrecks of the two submarines, he’d already learned his fruitful technique of searching for a debris trail instead of the whole vessel.
The Navy, meanwhile, had been very keen to conceal the fact that it was surveying for the wrecks of two nuclear submarines. After all, in 1985 the Cold War was still very much part of the political landscape – so sunken nuclear subs were a highly sensitive subject. But what better cover for its wider mission could the Navy have found than the hunt for the Titanic – even if it was ultimately successful?