"Armi" Armitage, was the test pilot of the "Credible Sport" rocket-powered Hercules and retired from Lockheed in 1982 after 30+ years of service. He spoke to a Lockheed Martin pilot club meeting. According to the minutes this is what happned:
After the failure of the hostage rescue mission in Iran on April 24, 1980, the Office of the Secretary of Defense approached Lockheed Georgia to modify 3 C-130H aircraft.
These aircraft were to take off from Eglin AFB in Florida, refuel in-flight on the way to Iran, and then land in the Amjadien soccer stadium across the street from the U. S. embassy in Teheran Iran with the intention of extracting the American hostages from the Embassy. After rescuing the hostages, these aircraft were to land on the the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf.
The plan was to modify three C-130s to land and takeoff on a soccer field. The program was so highly classified that the commanding officer of Eglin AFB had told him that it had such high priority that if Eglin needed to be shut down, that could be done.
The ship had eight retrorockets that delivered a total of 80,000 pounds of thrust to stop the C-130 once it was on the ground, l80,000 pounds of thrust to take off with and two pairs of rockets on either side to arrest the vertical descent. There was no trouble in hitting the ground, the hard part was firing the rockets at just the right altitude so their three second burn was timed correctly.
Iran had been our ally until the Shah was ousted from power by the Revolutionary Guard. Student militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 taking the Marine guards and embassy staff as hostages. After releasing some of the hostages, 53 remained. In the spring of 1980 a rescue attempt utilizing helicopters and C-130s was aborted when a helicopter collided with a C-130 tanker and eight servicemen were killed. With the presidential elections looming in November another plan was formulated. Lockheed was asked if a C-130 could be modified to take off and land on a soccer field. Lockheed evaluated the offer.
It was determined that 180,000 of thrust, equal to the thrust of 19-1/2 of the C-130's standard turboprop engines, would be required to get a C-130 off in the length of a soccer field and over the surrounding obstructions. The rocket engines would burn out at different times and there were rocket engines on the pylons in case of asymmetric thrust; yaw only firing. The plane would be 300 feet in the air after traveling 300 feet forward and with a takeoff roll of just 100 feet. Landing was the big problem. We had delivered 66 C-130's to Iran and the pilot was familiar with the soccer field in question. A dorsal and horizontal fin was added and all control surfaces were enlarged 35%. Double slotted flaps were added. It required 85% power to maintain five knots above stall speed. Go arounds would be a problem. The ailerons and other control surfaces were made fully hydraulically powered for quicker response.
The plane first flew in August. There was none of the formal flight test regimen to be followed because of the time span involved getting the hostages out of Tehran before the November presidential elections. If there were an accident, the project would never be talked about; if it were successful, it would never be talked about.
The project was divided up with the rocket control systems going to IBM. There were two pairs of rockets under the wing roots on each side. They had a three second duration of burn. They were fired manually 58 times. If they were fired too late, you would bounce.
The hostages were daily marched around the soccer field near the American Embassy and we were given advance notice of when the hostages would be at the field on a given day by one of the many Iranians who were still friendly to the U.S. The planes were equipped with flares, a radar altimeter and even a laser altimeter that looked ahead at the landing aim point to give a precise slant altitude above the touchdown point. A computer was to control the firing of the rockets. If the retrorockets fired before they were on the ground, they were dead. A test was scheduled for three days before the planned mission date in October. If the test were successful, the mission would be a go.
There were all kinds of glitches. All rocket firings up to now had been done manually. Early that morning Arni told the general and Lockheed personnel to postpone the test. The general said it was bigger than they were. Armi asked whether his refusing to fly the plane would put the test off, citing the general's earlier statement that he should use his best judgment. The general would order the Air Force pilots who had been flying with Armi to conduct the test (they were standing around them listening to the discussion). The general said that if the Air Force pilots refused to fly, they would be court marshaled.
Armi agreed to fly the test, but only if safety switches were installed to preclude the computer accidentally firing the rockets prematurely. It was agreed. There were three safety switches, one for the navigator for the vertically firing descent arresting rockets, one on the copilot's column and one on the pilot's column for the retrorockets. All the switches were on safe and it was the intent of the crew (six in all) to fire the rockets manually.
There were lots of dignitaries at the special Eglin AFB field prepared especially for the program. It was too early and too political. To be on the safe side they made the assisted takeoff first. Everything went well on takeoff and they came around for the landing.
Armi said it was one of those perfect approaches where you were right where you wanted to be, 85 to 86 knots. All the fire fighting equipment was ready and standing by. The navigator had control of the lifting rockets because his laser altimeter was the most accurate gage of height above the ground. At 50 feet he hit the switch, to fire the rockets at 49 feet above the ground. Armi heard a loud bang but they didn't fire. The pilots had control of the stopping rockets and both switches were on safe.
Armi lost part of his visibility, the upper retrorockets had fired. At 49 feet the lifting rockets had not fired. They had full flaps. Three fourths of the time they had fired the retrorockets on the ground roll, the engines had quit due to the exhaust gas temperature spike caused by the heat of the rocket's plumes.
He realized they were going to crash and his instructors had always said that if you're going to crash, try and hit flat. At 19 feet the rest of the retrorockets fired. They hit hard.
Four of the crew went out the back of the plane, Armi and the flight engineer were ready to jump out the crew entry door, but there was a sea of flames on the ground. One of the fire crew saw them and shot foam so they could get out.
After the firefighters had finished he asked the general and Lockheed officials present to accompany him and to go on board the crashed plane and observe the position of the safety switches. Both the pilots and co-pilots switches were still in the safe position.
Even though they hit hard, there was only one bruise on one crew member and one bit tongue because that person tended to stick it out between his teeth during stressful tasks. The general had stated that if there was an accident, there would be no accident investigation team. One month later an accident investigation team showed up.. The team knew nothing of the program. The full bird colonel leading the investigation asked if there were any comments before they started. The general who had been in charge of the program and other high ranking officers and Lockheed officials were present.
Armi spoke up and asked if the recorders could be turned off and the secretaries asked to leave. The colonel looked at the other officers and agreed. Armi gave a five-minute speil about how rushed and tenuous the program was and how he had been assured that if there were an accident, there would be no investigation.
Armi, stated that every pertinent Air Force regulation was violated. The general agreed. This was not normal, a politically drive program that from start to finish had been accomplished in two months. Armi, indicating that if he was fired as a result of the crash, said "I'm a civilian. I will sue." He would not be held responsible. The general agreed. Arni again stated that he would like to be part of the engineering investigation.
The colonel asked what we do now? The accident investigation was canceled. Later they had an engineering investigation.
The C-130 has the capability. He said it was a shame there was not enough time to get the bugs worked out. They had an Iranian general who was going to have all the radars out of commission. We had a lot of help. In the end, they said, "Don't come." The Iranian leaders wanted to end the hostage situation, but wanted to save face. The hostages were released shortly after President Reagan was sworn in.
Armi said that until Peter Jennings came on the evening news with the story, he wasn't aware that it had been declassified. He called a friend in Special Forces. He advised him not to mention names or get too specific. He believed there was potential to use AC-130 in a similar role in the future.
He added that the problem of the engines EGT spiking and causing the engines to quit was only when they operating at higher power while the retrorockets were firing. By going to ground power quickly, the engines would overheat momentarily but not shut off.
The following 3 C-130 H airframes were pulled out of active Air Force service inventory, and were considered expendable. These airframes were modified from April to August 1980 as follows:
# 4658 382 c-41 d 74-1683, Airframe #1 Assigned to the 463 Tactical Air Wing Oct 1977 to Sept 1980. Modified to a YMC-130H configuration for a rescue operation in Iran. With a C-141 in-flight refueling pod, DC-130 type radome. 30 Rockets total (ASROC engines provided by the Navy) pointing forward and downward on the forward and rear fuselage. This was the first airframe modified. It was tested at Duke field Eglin AFB. It flew approximately 4 test flights there. This aircraft crashed at a demonstration on Oct 29, 1980 with, Col. Belden as pilot in command. The airframe was buried at Duke field Eglin AFB after the crash.
# 4669 382 c-41 d 74-1686 Airframe #2 Assigned to the 463 T A W September 1976 to 1980. Modified to Y M C-130 H. 4950 Tactical Air Wing November 1982 to October 1987. Modified for a rescue operation in Iran. Modified as 74-1683. This airframe was used for experimental testing purposes at Warner Robins AFB. These test provided the foundation and prototype testing for the Combat Talon II aircraft. This airframe was DE-modified and given to the Warner Robins museum in March 1988.
# 4667 382 c-41 d 74-2065, Airframe #3 Assigned to the 463 T A W Oct 1977 to Sept 1980. This airframe was never completely modified to YMC-130H configuration and was used as a test platform for form fit and function of parts. The rockets were never fitted. This Airframe was de-modified in November 1984 at Lockheed Ontario. Painted in Lizard Camouflage scheme February 1988. Oct. 1991 assigned to the 773AS to present day.