The Incredible, Absurd Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission That Never Happened

Secret plans for a do-over included brute force and a daring transport plane redesign: "It would have been World War III."

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Updated with video

Despite a recent thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, anti-American Iranians will once again celebrate November 4 with chants of “death to America” and cheers for the 1979 day a student mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 people and beginning a 444-day hostage crisis that left America traumatized.

Compounding the nightmare for America was the disastrous April 24, 1980, mission to rescue the hostages—a logistical fiasco which left eight charred American corpses in the Iranian desert after a helicopter crashed into a transport plane at an improvised airfield known as Desert One.

While the story of that tragically failed mission is infamous, few Americans realize that planning began almost immediately for a second, even more audacious attempt—an ridiculously bold mission that would have had unpredictable results. “It would have been World War III,” one general involved in the planning later joked to the Washington Post.

Initiated even as recriminations over the botched first attempt swirled around Jimmy Carter‘s White House, the new plan—under the code name Honey Badger—traded the surgical design of the first one, which aimed for stealth and minimal violence, for brazen brute force. In an interview with the author David Patrick Houghton for a 2001 book on the hostage crisis Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security advisor at the time, said that

the second plan involved going into the airport at Tehran, taking the airport, shooting up anything in the way, bombing anything that starts interfering, storming the embassy, taking out anybody whose alive after that process and then going back and taking off.

The most serious planning, however, seems to have revolved not around action at Tehran’s airport but at its Amjadieh soccer stadium, located near the U.S. embassy in the city’s center. This was Operation Credible Sport, which sought to avoid the first mission’s reliance on helicopters to insert and remove personnel from the U.S. embassy area. That mission had failed after the helicopters encountered mechanical problems flying through the desert at night, leading to a crash that killed the eight Americans. No one wanted to use multiple choppers again.

The Pentagon effort, detailed by Jane’s Defence Weekly, as well as a 2001 account by retired Air Force Colonel Jerry L. Thigpen, tasked Lockheed-Martin engineers with modifying the design of a C-130 Hercules transport plane that would allow it to land and take off in a space that Jane’s described as the size of a football field with a 33-foot obstacle at either end. This was very likely the Amjadieh stadium, which had been the first mission’s designated point for extraction by helicopter of the hostages. (The obstacles were likely the stadium’s bleachers.)

The C-130 typically requires about 3000 of runway for landing and takeoff. Amjadieh afforded something closer to 100 yards. Like something from an adolescent boy’s imagination, the solution called for festooning the propeller plane with “lift rockets slanting downward, slowdown rockets facing forward, missile motors facing backward, and still more rockets to stabilize the plane as it touched down,” according to a CNN account of the Jane‘s report (which does not appear to be online).

Perhaps not shockingly, a Credible Sport test plane would quickly crash, when, on October 29, 1980, a confused pilot prematurely fired one of the rocket engines at low altitude, tearing off the plane’s right wing. (There were no casualties.) You can see an amazing video of it here:

Incredibly, the planning continued anyway, and was abandoned only after Iran’s government announced that it would release the hostages, who were returned in January 1981.

It’s a wonder Honey Badger went as far as it did. A second rescue attempt would have meant finding  the hostages, who—despite Brzezinski’s reference to storming the embassy—were moved to disparate new locations after the first mission’s failure, as Carter notes In his 1995 memoir Keeping Faith:

“After the captive Americans were dispersed to several secret locations, they were kept under heavy guard and also moved from place to place in order to keep them concealed from us,” he wrote. “Even with a maximum intelligence effort, there was no way to tell exactly where all of them were.”

Even if they could be found, the risk to their lives would surely be much higher than before. But U.S. officials who pushed Honey Badger and Credible Sport may have been thinking less about a realistic rescue operation than a nightmare scenario. Thigpen writes that the planning offered a last-resort contingency in case Iran began executing the hostages without provocation, requiring some kind of American intervention, however desperate. Fortunately for all involved, it never came to that.

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