When word was received that Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, went awfully wrong, and had no chance of proceeding, a new plan was immediately set into effect. Code-named Operation Honey Badger, it would be a repeated attempt at rescuing the hostages. One issue that bothered the planners was that there was no dedicated aviation unit to transport counter-terrorist commandos to their objectives. The first step was in creating this unit, and eventually two were formed. One, a "white," or open unit was code-named Task Force 160, and the other one, the "black," or covert unit was named Seaspray. Seaspray was a joint Army-CIA aviation unit, that would quickly and secretly transport Delta Force operators, materials and agents during covert operations. It was formally created on March 2, 1981. Due to the fact that the CIA was the only one "allowed" to conduct covert operations under a 1978 law, an Army clandestine unit was illegal. By joining with the CIA, the Army could have its unit, and the CIA would be half-owner even though it didn't have to pay a single dollar. At first, Seaspray's fleet consisted of fixed-wing Cessna and Beechcraft King Air airplanes, and Hughes MD500 helicopters, upgraded with the latest electronics and detection systems. The helicopters were purchased "off the books" and would not show up on the annual Army inventory, and were also kept secret from Congress. The helicopters had state-of-the-art night-vision systems allowing them to fly in the dark, could fly at extremely low altitudes, could carry up to 9 Delta Force operators on collapsible skids, were armed with machine guns and rocket pods, and were the quietest helicopters in the world. They were also equipped with the then-new Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) radar.
At first, the unit had 10 pilots, the best flyboys out of the Army's 4,000. Hundreds were evaluated by the CIA, and the best of the best were chosen. Finally, a commercial cover was devised, so that the unit could engage in covert operations, and not be identified as a part of the military. The cover was a CIA company, Aviation Tech Services, which let the helicopters appear as they were privately owned. The unit itself was headquartered at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and was named the First Rotary Wing Test Activity. Another secret headquarters for Seaspray was located in Tampa Bay at MacDill AFB, to support operations in Central America.
Seaspray would be involved in countless covert operations, most of which the public will never know of. They conducted intelligence missions, transported foreign leaders, and participated in counter-terrorist exercises and missions with Delta Force and other CT units. A few times, Seaspray helicopters were loaned to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat drug smuggling. In one particular incident, a Seaspray pilot observed as a tanker off the Florida coast, unloaded "cargo" to high speed boats. Eventually, the Seaspray force grew to nine fixed-wing aircraft and five helicopters. Seaspray could get things done quickly, and they were generally well-liked in the special operations community. When Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) needed a Boeing 737 airplane for a counter-terrorist exercise, the Air Force told them it would take three months to get one. Seaspray delivered the 737 in 3 days.
Information provided courtesy of Peter Tomich