There is an old saying: “Adversity is the mother of invention.”
And I’d say that if any field really exemplifies that, it’s military aviation.
Want to know what the enemy is doing? Stick a guy in a balloon to see further and be able to tell you.
Want to do it further afield? Take one of those newfangled aeroplanes and stick a camera on it.
Want to stop the other guy doing that? Stick a machine gun on one of yours.
Want to stop the enemy from bombing the living poop out of your cities? Strap some poor soul and two cannon to a giant rocket motor that if it goes wrong will melt him.
That not doing for you then just ADD MORE ROCKETS!
You get the picture.
Indeed, military aviation is replete with the continued march of progress, often spurred by sudden, drastic need. And the aircraft we will look at today is both a classic and one of the most dramatic examples of this.
The Lockheed XFC-130H.
In 1979, the United States found itself caught up in a crisis that hadn’t been anticipated. The Iranian Revolution, which had seen the deposing from power of the Shah, had essentially become dominated by the Islamist faction headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini and with it came the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in April of that year.
The Shah, who was dying of cancer and had been wandering the globe seeking asylum and treatment, was granted permission to come to the United States for surgery in October. This gave Khomeini the perfect excuse to create outrage against the United States within Iran and led to a mob of students loyal to Khomeini storming the US Embassy in Tehran on the 4th of November and seizing the fifty-two staff members there as hostages, with the demand being that the Shah be extradited back to Iran to face trial. President Jimmy Carter wasn’t able to do this and so though the US authorities did kick the Shah out as soon as they could in December, the scene was set for a very dangerous confrontation.
When negotiations broke down in April 1980 and rhetoric in Iran escalated to threats that the hostages would face trial, the US military was instructed to act and rescue them.
The operation, code named “Eagle Claw” was infamously a disaster.
There are articles out there with what happened and what went wrong, so I won’t go into it too much. But basically, Eagle Claw saw eight US personnel killed in an accident, which also destroyed one C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and an RH-53D helicopter which collided while landing at a remote staging point in the Iranian desert. The mission had to be abandoned, as were five of the assault helicopters that the bemused Iranians found the next day.
Needless to say, the whole thing was an embarrassment and led to much assessment by the US military about its performance and inability to conduct the mission required of it in this case. Most histories of the affair point out that the failure led to a number of major changes in the US Special Forces establishment, including the founding of Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the 160th Special Operations Squadron.
But many don’t go into the fact that the failure of Eagle Claw didn’t simply end the whole affair – in fact, it made it considerably more dangerous. The Iranians were, understandably, pretty angry that the operation had been attempted, anti-American rhetoric in Iran escalated and the chances of the hostages being released in the near future evaporated.
So, the US military set about planning a new mission to rescue them; Operation Honey Badger.
And as its name suggest, it was a much more aggressive affair, and would essentially have seen something like a reinforced battalion of US Rangers and Special Forces seize the main airport in Tehran with heavy air support – basically an invasion of Iran. In fact though a number of exercises were conducted around the concept – and I believe the lessons learned later applied to things like the intervention in Grenada in 1983 and the 1989 Invasion of Panama – it seems that Honey Badger was more of an attempt to figure what could be done if it needed to be, rather than a practical plan of action.
And one element that is particularly noteworthy was Operation Credible Sport. This sought to deal with one of the issues that had caused the disaster in Eagle Claw; that the available helicopters just didn’t have the range or capacity to land a worthwhile rescue force near the embassy except in numbers. The sheer quantity of helicopters needed for Eagle Claw had been one of its downfalls. What would be better was if a single large transport aircraft could manage to land as close to the embassy as possible, which would allow a rescue force to overcome the hostages’ guards, evacuate them to the aircraft and fly straight out.
Trouble was the only open space close to the former US embassy was the Amjadieh Stadium, which had been the intended landing zone for the Eagle Claw helicopters.
As you can see, not exactly a large space and definitely not big enough to land a large enough aircraft in to be worthwhile.
And that’s where the planners, assisted by Lockheed, got creative; they designed and built a special variant of the C-130 that could both land and take off in that area. In fact, they built three of them and the XFC-130H was created.
The Hercules is built to be capable of making surprisingly tight take-off and landings for such a large aircraft, but the requirement was something that had been pretty much inconceivable. The C-130H, which was the current variant at the time, and which was chosen for conversion, needed more than 1,000 metres (>3,500feet) of open strip to take off at its maximum gross weight of seventy tonnes (155,000lb), and even at half that weight still needed 427m (1,400 feet) to land and take off.
The target stadium had perhaps just 120m (c.400 feet) of usable space for the mission, plus the aircraft needed to be capable of clearing a 10 metre (33 feet) obstruction, i.e., the surrounding stands.
And the solution was once again lots and LOTS of rockets…and a bunch of other aerodynamic tweaks. The XFC-130H mounted eight forward-pointed rocket motors taken from ASROC anti-submarine weapons mounted around the forward fuselage to brake the aircraft basically on the spot once it touched down, eight more taken from RIM-66 Standard surface-to-air missiles mounted under the fuselage and pointing backwards to basically blast the XFC-130 into the sky, along with another two ASROC rockets mounted vertically under the tail so as to shoot the back of the aircraft into the air so the pilots didn’t have to worry about tail strikes when lifting off.
Then there were another eight rockets, these taken from Shrike anti-radar missiles, which were mounted vertically above the wheel wells and which would cushion the aircraft as it practically dropped vertically to land, igniting as the aircraft touched down. Finally, another four Shrike motors were mounted under the wings to give rocket assistance to controlling the aircraft’s yaw on lift off which would have been, as you can imagine, rather rapid.
On top of all the rockets the XFC-130’s also had the ailerons extended, double-slotted flaps fitted, and supplementary fins added. They also had a comprehensive electronics suite fitted, mainly drawn from the MC-130E Combat Talon special operations transport, which included terrain following radar, countermeasures and a state of the art navigation system.
And finally, there was a tailhook because the mission called for the evacuating rescue team and hostages to land on a carrier in the Gulf. Now, there had been successful experiments in the 1960s to see if it was feasible to land C-130s on US aircraft carriers, and so this was all theoretically possible.
But there is a bit of a difference between conducting experiments in ideal conditions and running a full-scale operation with a fully loaded combat aircraft carrying large numbers of people, many of them civilians.
But that was the requirement, and so that is what the XFC-130H was designed for.
Conversions were undertaken in great secrecy at an auxiliary strip on Eglin Air Base in Florida, with the first XFC-130 being ready to begin testing a remarkable three weeks after confirmation was given. Testing began on October 19, 1980, to first assess the handling of the aircraft and to trial the new flap arrangements, which all proved that already the aircraft was much more capable in slow speed landings than the existing C-130. With this all positive, and there still being an urgent need for the aircraft’s full capability should it suddenly be needed, a test of the full rocket assisted profile took place on the 29th of October.
The take-off went perfectly, indeed, the XFC-130 managed to break several short take-off records.
But the landing, well…
There is still some controversy over what exactly happened. Initially it was claimed that the engineer in charge of firing the rockets made a mistake and thought the aircraft had already landed, and therefore triggered the downward pointing Shrike rockets too early.
However, the Lockheed crew piloting the aircraft stated that some issue with the firing of the rockets occurred, believing it to be an electrical or computer fault.
Regardless, the result was that the XFC-130 essentially stopped in mid-air. And gravity being gravity, it decided it had the final say and the aircraft came down hard, tearing one of the wings off and causing the XFC-130 to burst into flames. Quite remarkably no one appears to have been seriously hurt, but the aircraft was a write-off and was stripped of its important equipment and then buried on site to preserve secrecy.
Work continued on the other two aircraft, but talks had resumed on resolving the issue and in January 1981 the hostages were released and there was no more need for the XFC-130.
To be honest, the aircraft were more of an excuse to see what was possible as after Eagle Claw the Iranians had removed the prisoners from the embassy compound and scattered them to several locations, meaning a rescue plan was no longer possible. But the development program certainly showed a remarkable amount of ingenuity and in fact the whole thing wasn’t a complete waste of effort.
One of the other aircraft scheduled for conversion was returned to normal transport duties, but the other, now designated as the YMC-130H, served as the test bed for a new model of the Combat Talon Hercules, which entered service in 1991. And that aircraft, serial number 74-1686, after languishing for many years at Robins Air Force Base, is now at the Empire States Aeroscience Museum in New York State.