NARRATION: President after president has expanded the footprint of U.S. special operations.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2-6-17):PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No enemy stands a chance against our Special Forces.
NARRATION: How did Special Ops become so central to Americas war fighting?
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 5-5-17):JAKE TAPPER: Can Special Ops keep up the pace?
NARRATION: The story of how America became so dependent on these forces began with an unusual event almost five decades agowhen someone yelled fire on a crowded plane.
OLIVIER COJOT (12-YEAR-OLD PASSENGER): Everybody turns around to look at whats happening there. And there are two people who each have a hand grenade in their hand and a gun.
ILAN HARTUV (FLIGHT 139 PASSENGER): Suddenly we heard on the intercom, a man speaking in English with a German accent, who said that that wed changed directions. But if well behave and follow instructions, nothing bad will happen to us.
OLIVIER COJOT: At the end he said, Thank you for flying Air France, and, you know, hung up.
NARRATION: The plane had been hijacked by a group of German radicals and members of a Palestinian liberation organization.
OLIVIER COJOT: They want the freedom of 53 prisoners. If Israel and the other countries accept to release those prisoners, no harm will be done to us, theyll release us. And, if not, itll be different.
ILAN HARTUV: And he finished it with the words, Now you know how the mind of a crazy German revolutionary works.
NARRATION: Twenty-eight hundred miles later, the plane touched down in Entebbe, Uganda, where the hostages were greeted by its leader, Idi Amin.
OLIVIER COJOT: He says look, these terrorists have the full support of the Ugandan people. Now the building is surrounded with Ugandan soldiers armed with machine guns. So, you know, I asked my father whats going to happen. He told me, you know, Were probably dead meat because Israel never negotiates. He even made the argument, Its way too far for Israel to intervene.
NARRATION: Soon 47 hostages were released in an attempt to entice the Israeli Government to the table. Olivier Cojot was among them.
ARCHIVAL (TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH):OLIVIER COJOT: So it was quite dangerous.REPORTER: What did they have?OLIVIER COJOT: Grenades and boxes of explosives.
NARRATION: Israeli intelligence, secretly planning an operation, was waiting for them.
OLIVIER COJOT: They start asking me all kinds of question. Like how high is the grass out there? Can you see the lake from where you are? Which way do the doors open? You know, is it wall, window?
BRIGADIER GEN. JOSHUA SHANI (ISRAELI AIR FORCE, RETIRED): We never, never had to plan an operation which is so far away, with so many soldiers. I was not afraid of being killed or being hurt. I was afraid of failure.
NARRATION: Three days later, lead pilot Joshua Shani guided a squadron of four Hercules C-130s, through the darkness toward Entebbe airport.
JOSHUA SHANI: We landed normal landing. No big deal. In the middle of the runway, paratroopers jumped from the door. Their job was to conquer the control tower. I made the turn. I saw the terminal. It was quiet. The Entebbe situation was based on surprise.
NARRATION: Out the back of the Israeli plane, heavily-armed commandos quickly drove a convoy that included a Mercedes chosen to resemble Amins.
JOSHUA SHANI: It took seconds, and they were inside the building.
ILAN HARTUV: Our soldiers were beginning to come in. Then I thought that there would be bullets flying, and I covered myself with a mattress.
NARRATION: Within 51 minutes the commandos had killed all the terrorists and Ugandan soldiers guarding the building. Then they rushed the 102 remaining hostages onto the awaiting planes.
RADIO TRANSMISSION (TRANSLATED FROM HEBREW):Can I take off the moment Im fully loaded?Take off. Take off. Positive. Take off.
JOSHUA SHANI: After we were satisfied, my instruction was, Take off. Dont wait. Go! Go!
NARRATION: Four hostages were killed, as was the commandos leader, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. But the world saw the bold operation as an extraordinary success.
JOSHUA SHANI: Immediately you saw a trend. Im talking about real countries, like the U.S., of course; U.K.; Germany; Italian. All came to learn. It was like the whole world say, Wow! They have chutzpah, these guys. They are damned good. Entebbe gave a green light to governments that there is maybe another way and not just to surrender.
NARRATION: One of those governments was the United States.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-8-79):ANCHOR: Look at this, one American blindfolded, handcuffed, today in the courtyard of the American Embassy in Tehran; he and 60-some others still held hostage and threatened in a country gone out of control.
NARRATION: Dozens of Americans had been taken hostage as the Islamic Revolution swept through Iran. And President Jimmy Carters administration looked to Entebbe for a solution.
AUSTIN LONG (FORMER ADVISOR, SPECIAL OPERATIONS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE): Operation Eagle Claw attempted to project power and Special Operations Forces deep into into enemy, hostile territory. But while it was sort of in the same spirit as Entebbe, there were a lot of moving parts for Operation Eagle Claw.
NARRATION: The daring plan called for U.S. Delta Force commandos to land in the Iranian desert, then sneak into the city of Tehran to free the hostages
WADE ISHIMOTO (FORMER U.S. ARMY DELTA FORCE, OPERATION EAGLE CLAW): I knew it was going to be complex and really, really high risk. But if the President was going to order us to go, then you salute smartly, and you go.
NARRATION: But the mission lacked Entebbes precision. Planners hadnt accounted for the regions punishing dust storms. Mission helicopters were crippled. Then there was a crash.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-25-80):FRANK REYNOLDS: Good evening. We tried, we failed, and we have paid a price.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-25-80):WALTER CRONKITE: Left behind in the desert of Iran are the bodies of eight American servicemen, seven U.S. aircraft, and many questions.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-25-80):PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: To the families of those who died and who were wounded, I want to express the admiration I feel for the courage of their loved ones and the sorrow that I feel personally for their sacrifice.
NARRATION: In response to the failure, the U.S. made sweeping changes over the next decade to how these operations were conducted, increasing their funding, beefing up the forces and putting them under a central command.
WADE ISHIMOTO: In 1980, there were some six to eight thousand Special Operations people. Todays count is over 69,000. Unbelievable growth. Because of Eagle Claw, we find ourselves much better prepared today. Many things would not have happened without that failure.
ARCHIVAL (WHITE HOUSE, 5-1-11):PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
NARRATION: But as Special Operations have become crucial to U.S. military strategy, concerns have also emerged that the forces are being overused and sometimes put in harms way without a clear strategic goal.
WADE ISHIMOTO: Special Operations should not be the panacea for every kind of difficulty that we find ourselves around the world facing, to include terrorism. We should not get to the point that we become the solution for the United States Military.