Operation Honeybadger, June 1980, Hurlburt Field and Many Other places

My recollections from “32” years ago, and Much after the Fact.


I had been re-assigned to the 41st ARRS at McClellan AFB, California in May of 1980. In June of 1980 the HH-53’s of the unit were tasked to deploy to Hurlburt Field in FL. for “Operation Honeybadger” the C-130’s of the unit were tasked to provide in-flight refueling, but were not to part of the operation.



1980-1982 Typical trip with Refueling

Operation  to Hurlburt Field Fl

and Back to McCellan AFB Ca

or Vise Versa



All the H-53 of active units supplied the aircraft including the highly modified Pave Low aircraft; I think we had 12 H-53’s land at Hurlburt for the operation with the 1st Special Operations Wing and the 20th Special Operations Squadron.


After we all arrived the UH-1N and CH-3 folks and aircraft were GROUNDED! They were told to support us H-53 folks in any and every way, witch really ticked off the guys of the 20th, but they obeyed the order. We started flying NIGHT training missions shortly thereafter, first we needed training on the use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG’s) We were tasked to perform many types of night missions from mild at first to Wild as we became more accustomed to the use of the NVG’s.


We had different aircraft Call Signs at first, but someone came up with the idea that, since we all came into Hurlburt like a bunch of “COWBOYS” and took over the place maybe we should use the call sign “Cowboy” everyone liked it, and it stuck, the 20th H-53’s used the Cowboy call sign from then until the unit was deactivated in October of 08 and the H-53’s were RETIRED after 42 years of life long service to the US Air Force. Most were lucky enough to reach retirement, however a lot of them did not, mostly due to the HIGH TREAT environment they operated in from their first takings with the Air Force, South East Asia, NASA, Space Capsule/Drone Recovery, Special Operations, Etc., Etc. Most of us considered and accepted these risks in the performance of our duties flying with the H-53 as just another day at the OFFICE, as it became the norm for us.


Did you ever hear the joke about 2 Pilots that landed sideways on the runway? One Pilot says to the other, “dam this is a short runway”, the other Pilot replied, “yes, but it sure is “WIDE”.

This kind of explains some of the limitations we placed on ourselves in doing our training. We would deliberately limit our point of landing for the precision of the maneuver. Sometimes everything worked out ok, sometimes it didn’t, and we would damage the aircraft in some way occasionally. It was like practice bleeding, at some point you determine that this is not healthy and change your procedure to a safer one.


You might say that “We Were Writing the Book on H-53 Night Special Ops” They told us on many occasions in the mission briefings to be “CAREFUL” out there, since there was no “OFFICIAL” written guidance or regulations for us to use as guidance in our operations.


I was flying on HH-53’s and not on the Pave Lows, we were using the Gen II, NVG’s, in our training an operations and one big problem for the Pilots was referring their instrument scanning to another person such as the FE, they wanted to be in control of the aircraft. So we modified $6500.00 a pair NVG’s by cutting out the bottom of the housings so that the Pilots could have the look down capability to scan their instruments, at least somewhat, we had the cockpit lighting OFF, or at least subdued by using, should I say it, “DUCT TAPE” any glare was terrible for the NVG’s and reflected off the windshield making it hard to see with the NVG’s. We and the Depot folks were working on lighting that would be out of the light spectrum that was viable to the NVG’, it took a long time to get if figured out and working satisfactorily. Because extraneous light was such a problem in the cockpit, I devised and fabricated a light for my finger; can you say E.T.? I took a small light bulb like the 327 bulbs used for instrument lighting, put it into a housing, connected a 9 volt battery as a power supply and Velcro’ed it to a strap and strapped it to my arm, made a small reed switch and put it between my thumb and fore finger of my Flight Glove, Then took a small Fiber Optic Cable end and sewed it to my Flight Glove for my right hand index finger. It worked fantastically, all I had to do was press the reed switch together and I got a subdued small 1 inch circle of light to read the check list, etc.


We “SLICKS” as they called us guys with the HH-53’s did everything the Pave Low guy’s did, only WE did it with the Mk-I eye ball and the NVG’s. Of course we were severely lacking in the “O” visibility category. One time, on one of our many night training flights the Pilot flew straight into a Rain Storm while on NVG’s, he went BLIND, as in he could not see anything, he started calling for LIGHTS, LIGHTS, meaning he wanted the cockpit lights turned on so he could see his flight instruments as he was wanting to transition back to Instrument Flight Rules. I was his FE and was fumbling trying to find the light switches since I was also on NVG’s. While I was finding the light switches he was yanking off his helmet and NVG’s to be able to see the instruments, I think we were about 200 feet above the ground when this happened. This happened before we got the idea to modify the Pilots NVG’s. After this hair raising Religious experience, I got out my trusty roll or do I say it again, “DUCT TAPE” We always carried a roll for subduing any and all lighting that was a problem for the NVG’s. I took some tape and put it around the lighting switches and rheostats that were very important. Since it was always so hard to find things when wearing NVG’s, all you had to do was wave your hand along the lighting panel and boom, there was the switch you needed, the tape is still on the H-53’s today for the very same reason. The FE’s usually kept one di-opter of the NVG’s focused to the outside of the aircraft and the other one focused for inside the Cockpit, all you had to do was open or close an eye to see what distance you wanted to see, they were adjustable, but things were always fuzzy to me when looking at things inside the cockpit.


We were getting pretty well accustomed to the NVG’s after awhile, we would fly on ANY night regardless of the available light that night. On a NO MOON night it was really, really dark out there, we flew closer to the ground and a little slower on these nights. Ever heard the saying “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face?” We were out there flying in that darkness, lights OUT, only the rear beacon on top of the Tail Rotor Pylon and the Rotor Blade tip lights were on, so that the other aircraft could see us with their NVG’s. We flew so many nights like this, on full moon nights we repeated the Police Academy saying, Goggles, we don’t need no stinking goggles, it was so bright compared to no moon nights, it almost looked like broad daylight to us.


One of or training mission taskings was a maneuver they wanted us to practice and do, they laid out a 200 meter taped square in a very large area for us, the object was to do a “6” Ship simultaneous touchdown landing within the taped boundaries, We said YOUR CRAZY! The H-53 is 85 feet long and has a 72 foot main rotor, we felt that this was a risky operation to say the least, they said, “WE HAVE TO DO THIS” so we went out and practiced and practiced this over and over, we finally got proficient at it and it became comfortable for everyone to do. Then they told us that they wanted us to do it using NVG’s we told them then that they were “REALY CRAZY”. Again they said “WE HAVE TO DO THIS” so we went out and practiced and practiced this over and over, and again we finally got proficient at it and it became comfortable for everyone to do. I Can’t say that it didn’t get very religious at times, but when we were finally able to do this maneuver it kind of water our own eyes, as it was very impressive to see 6 big helicopters make a simultaneous landing with no lights at night.


Some of you are probably wondering how we were able to do some of these things; it wasn’t easy to say the least. Our Chain of Command was “VERY SHORT” it went form Sq. Commander to Wing Commander to the Joint Chiefs, I think headquarters were bypassed, (although I’m not sure on that, they were trying to keep information secure) because this was a High Priority Special Ops Tasking. We did have a lot of help though, the Depot Teams worked hard and Fast Too, they were doing upgrades the whole summer of 1980 and beyond. Some of the things they did first was they installed a Pilot controlled Infer Red (IR) search light so that he could see with the NVG’s, they removed the Old and antique DOPPLER navigation system originally installed in the aircraft for the Navy Contract in 1966, and installed a Palletized Inertial Navigation System (INS) so that we could meet our Time On Target (TOT) requirements that any Special Operation mission required.


Because of the equipment failures incurred in “Desert 1” (Failed Rescue Mission into IRAN to get the Embassy Hostages in 1980)


The Joint Chiefs asked us what we needed to make the aircraft more viable for the Special Operations Mission, we gave them a list of desired improvement we needed.


The basic list is below:


Higher Horsepower Engines, Horse Power is the Life Blood for Helicopters

Ours had 3925 HP engines; there were 4300 HP engines available in the supply system.

Depot Guys acquired and started installing the new engines.


Weapons for better reliability and Stand Off range

Depot Guys acquired and started installing the new .50 caliber weapons, and fabrication of new gun pintle mounts for all 3 gun positions.

When we acquired the .50 Cals they were wrapped in Cosmoline, the Old Heads know about this stuff, when the weapons were cleaned up, the date on the weapons was 1941, brand new with not a speck of rust to be found.


After the fabricateation of the new pintle mounts for the .50 Cals, we started to use them in training.

Problem: when you fired one .50 Cal the instrument needles would shake, when you fire both .50 Cals the instruments would vibrate/shake violently.

Solution: Depot guys found hydraulically dampened Soft Mounts for the .50 Cals. Brand new off B-17’s from WW II, then you could fire both .50 Cals with just slight needle movement.


Counter Measures for Heat Seeking and Radar Guided Missiles

Depot Guys acquired and started installing Flair and Chaff dispensing systems onto the aircraft.

They went to the A-10 Assembly line and took the systems off the aircraft being built.


Secure Radios for OPEC

Depot Guys acquired and started installing Secure Voice UHF/VHF Radios, not sure about the FM radios though.

Problem: Found out that Muammar Gaddafi bought the company that made the VHH Secure Voice Radios, OOP’s


Satellite Communication Provisions

So that you can talk directly to “THE MAN” for guidance if needed.

Depot Guys acquired and started installing Secure Voice Satellite Communication Systems.


New Style Rotor Heads

Our Rotorheads were oil filled and were always leaking; on LONG FLIGHTS this could be a big problem.

Solution: Acquire and install the new Elastameric Rotorhead, no lubrication required as components are mounted it RUBBER.

Problem: Sikorsky said that they would cost 1.5 Mil. Each and would be at least 2 years out. I guess they were put on the future list; all the 20th and 21st unit aircraft have the Navy/Marine style folding self Tricing Rotorheads on them when they retired I think, don’t know if it is the Elastrameric head or not.


Crash Worthy Aux Fuel Tanks

WE needed RANGE, so they installed the 650 gallon Aircraft Ferrying aux tanks.

Problem: The 650’s did not have explosive suppressing foam installed

Solution: The Depot Guy’s “HAND CUT” and installed the foam in the 650 Gallon Tanks.

Problem: The 650’s were still not CRASH WORTHY

Solution: The Depot and Vendor Engineers got together and fabricated a new style 600 gallon Aux Tank. The tank was made by wrapping several layers of Kevlar to make a tank, don’t know what they used as a form, or if it has foam or not, I think they were made without the foam inside. After fabricating the test prototype tank they filled it with water and dropped it from 30 feet, no leaks, it passed the requirements and was manufactured and installed on all the H-53’s, as they were made available, still there today too.


We spent one HELL of ALLOT of money in 1980, but we gained a capability that we never had and needed badly to cope with this CRAZY WORLD we live in today.


My hat’s OFF to all the brave souls that continued what we OLD TIMERS started, they have been ALL OVER THE WORLD with this Capability, risking their lives on a daily basis and have brought countless soles home to safety. WELL DONE!!! Just another day at the Office, but your Office is a PAVE LOW, the most Suffistaked Helicopter in the World, PERIOD!!! I for one was very saddened to hear of it Retirement, the Word will miss it.


Anyhow back to Training


We were tasked to do Com OUT, Night In-Flight Aerial Refueling training, again we thought they were crazy, but learned earlier that they meant it. It was a little touchy at first, but then we settled into it ok I guess.


Then they upped the Anny, they wanted us to do it LIGHTS/COM OUT and with NVG’s,

We knew they were crazy then, after scaring the HELL out of ourselves a couple of times we finally were able to do it with some degree of confidence, although not a lot at first.

About NVG’s.


If you have never used them they take allot of patience to get used to, you have to find other references to rely upon when working with them. Take two toilet paper inner rolls and put them up to your eyes, that kind of simulates NVG’s although crudely. You will notice that you have almost “0” Zero Peripheral Vision, and severely diminished Depth Perception, now add Darkness and Dust to that. You discover that you use Shadows allot in judging height and movement around you. Now Go Fly in the Dark young man.


We flew all over the southern states, mostly in desert sites, and operated from clearings in the desert floor most of the time it was a very dust and dirty operation, when one would take a shower the water would turn BROWN from all the dirt from the training.


We worked and trained with Navy Seals, Marines, Army Green Berets, Army Rangers, Delta Force and others as well.


On one tasking from McClellan was that we were to go to Fort Lewis in Washington to do Special Ops training with the Army Rangers there. We were supposed to go to Ft Lewis fully loaded with weapons and ammo to simulate a real mission, so that the rangers would know what to expect with us. As we got up to Ft. Lewis we had pre planned that we would land at Ft. Lewis and they would put some Army Rangers on/around the Aircraft to guard the weapons and aircraft for us. As we got ready to go into Ft. Lewis the Air Force Control Tower personnel told us that we could not land at Ft. Lewis, we were US Air Force Aircraft and HAD to land at Mc Chord AFB, so we did.


Problem: We had Mini Guns and Lots of Ammo onboard to deal with.

Solution: Download all the Ammo and Mini Guns, Cary them to the Security Police Armory and turn them in to them, imagine this, a bunch of guys come in you door with so much ammunition wrapped all over them they looked like Poncho Via, plus caring Mini Guns in their Arms.


We also turned in our service revolvers that have plastic bullets and Hollow Points in them, one of the young Security Policemen in the armory asked what the red bullet were for. One of the guys said that we were in AIR RESCUE and that they were little transmitters that we would shoot into our leg so that the satellites could track us if we were shot down or captured because we all were on WORLD WIDE MOBILITY; he thought that was way COOL.


The nest day when we picked up all the Weapons and Ammo, the same guy was there, as he gave back the plastic bullets, He said to the guy who told him the story “Here’s you F’ing Plastic Bullets” He probably took a lot or ribbing on that one.


We loaded up and flew over to Ft. Lewis with no more problems from the Air Force, I guess someone talked to someone and it was approved for us to stay at Ft. Lewis, which was JUST across the runway from Mc Chord AFB.


I know that this has gotten pretty long to say the least, I did not cover “ALL ASPECTS” of the operation, but I did try and give you some insight as to what it’s like to fly around in the dark, and do your JOB.


What We Didn’t Know at the time we started this training was just What we were training for, lots of guessing, but no one knew for sure.


In case you have not figured what we were doing; we were training for a 2nd Rescue attempt to get the Embassy Hostages of Iran. Luckily, the hostages were released very quickly after President Ragan took Office in 1980. It could have been really nasty, but we will never know.


In Closing, I would like to say that even though we did not do the mission, we DID make enormous strides in building a capability that has gotten a lot better over all these years.


The 20th SOS, and the 21st SOS deserves enormous credit for developing these Special Operations capabilities.


If anyone knew Col. Bill Tackas, you knew how gruff of a guy he was, he would tell full Coronals to go to hell if he was right; he was my old Commander in the 701st TASS at Bergstrom AFB, Texas and became the Commander of the 20th SOS during Operation Honeybadger. I remember on one deployment to Panama, in a Mass Mission Briefing we were told that if we got shot down on the mission or had to make an emergency landing, that we would have to fend for ourselves. When He got up to brief us he said in no uncertain terms, “If anyone leaves any of my people on the ground, they will have ME to answer to when they get back”, and he meant every damn word of it too. He was an Old BROWN SHOE Coronal and had over 7’000 hours in the air mostly on HELICOPTERS!


I was very saddened to hear of his passing, with ALS of all things. He was a very proud Man and took care of his people with a gusto you rarely see today.


For those or you that would like to know more about this mission, it’s on line. Look for “Operation Honeybadger” we weren’t sitting on our hands in 1980


Also check “Operation Credible Sport” the C-130 side of the equation, would you believe A Rocket Powered C-130?


John Hatch, MSgt. USAF Retired,

Old Green Hornet/Dusty/Knife/Jolly and “Cowboy”