Note: this is part of a series about America’s first counterterrorism unit. You can read part one here. 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. 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 excercise, one Special Forces soldier expressed skepticism, saying, “This will never work.”
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.
It is probably nothing more than a military myth that Blue Light and Delta were placed in competition with one another, with the winner becoming the Army’s permanent counterterrorism force, because Blue Light was never designed to be more than an interim unit from the beginning. However, there is another interesting sidebar in which Delta was brought down to Blue Light’s S&K range during their validation process.
Blue Light was put through a shooting exercise the same month that Delta shot at the same range, leading some to believe that even if they were not being compared to see which would become the permanent counterterrorist unit, someone was trying to validate training techniques. At the time, there was no data available for shooting drills, as new marksmanship methodologies related to counterterrorism were still in their infancy. When shooting, how fast is fast? How accurate is accurate enough? Certainly, you need to be faster than the enemy, but where is the baseline? What does right look like?
The Army needed to draw up their task, conditions, and standards for counterterrorism operations. Perhaps that is why they tested Blue Light and Delta out at the same range in the same month, to see what their standards should look like. After all, Blue Light and Delta consisted of basically the same type of Special Forces soldiers, aside from the one or two Rangers in Delta during the early years.
Meanwhile, Charlie Beckwith was feeling some pressure as he tried to get Delta up and running. He was struggling to get soldiers through his selection course, the Ranger battalions were not allowing their men to attend, and significant tension had developed between Beckwith and General Mackmull (Beckwith, 128). In January of 1978, Beckwith rightly or wrongly felt that Mackmull was beginning to throw his clout and resources behind Blue Light instead of Delta.
There had always been a rivalry between Colonel Beckwith and Colonel Mountel at 5th Group. There was a difference in opinion in regards to recruiting: Mountel used the good-old-boy network to recruit men for Blue Light while Beckwith favored the SAS model of having a selection process to identify those who were most likely to succeed in the field and who could work independently. Mountel’s reasoning, according to Beckwith, was that “Delta really belongs in Special Forces, but Beckwith doesn’t want it there. Blue Light is in the community. Come out and look at what we are doing” (Beckwith, 129).
And come they did. Blue Light put on numerous demonstrations for VIPs and guests. Blue Light held demonstrations for FBI Director William Webster, CIA Director Stanford Turner, the director of the transportation authority, handfuls of generals, and Charlie Beckwith himself. When the Army Chief of Staff, General Bernie Rogers, came down to visit Blue Light, they had him stand on the back of a flatbed truck on S&K range. As he held onto the railing, two snipers positioned 300 meters away shot two balloons filled with red Kool-Aid on either side of the general.
“What!?” the general exclaimed, just about ready to jump out of his skin.
“Those were our snipers, shooting about four inches over your head,” Blue Light’s sergeant major announced. The shots were actually a bit higher than four inches, but the sergeant major got his point across.
Training also continued at S&K range for the men (and one woman) of Blue Light. They conducted simulated building and warehouse takedowns in “Hogan’s Ally,” a simulated urban environment featuring building facades. Cardboard silhouettes would pop up in the windows and doors that Blue Light assaulters had to engage with their 1911 pistols. Other times they would stage targets inside the structures; some of them simulated hostages, and others simulated terrorists holding guns. The Blue Light members had to storm the building and engage in target discrimination as they fired on the enemy silhouettes.