“At that time, there was a shortage of pilots and navigators and aviation people. They went through our high school and gave us tests. The tests were voluntary but if you passed the test, after your 17th birthday you’d be called to active duty and right into flight school and flight training,” Armitage said.
Armitage made the grade and joined the Air Force as a pilot in 1944. “At the time, they needed pilots so badly (the Air Force) didn’t require you have a college education,” he said.
At age 20, Armitage was stationed in Montgomery, Ala., where he met 17-year-old Katherline at a roller skating rink. Armitage and Katherline married Aug. 5, 1945. They have three grown daughters: Kaye, Sheri and Lisa, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Realizing he needed and wanted more education, Armitage temporarily got out of the service to attend Auburn University and subsequently Georgia Tech. He would later work at Georgia Tech in the research division. While in college, Katherline owned a beauty salon and supported the family. Subsequently, Armitage was called back to active duty.
In 1952, the family moved to Marietta when Armitage accepted a job with Lockheed Martin as an engineering test pilot where he worked for 30 years while continuing in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
“I flew just about everything Lockheed built back in the days,” Armitage said.
“Any new plane — military or commercial — or any plane that was changed had to be test flown before it went into production. Everything that was new, we tested the airplane first and then tested them to do these various missions,” he said.
At the time, Armitage said Lockheed employed 30,000 people building airplanes.
“There were never more than about 30 test pilots,” he said.
Armitage tells a wealth of stories about his different adventures testing airplanes such as the C-130, C-141, and C-5.
Among his most exciting adventure, Armitage told of his experience on Operation Credible Sport during the Iran Hostage Crisis under Jimmy Carter’s administration. After a failed attempt to free the hostages under Operation Eagle Claw, Operation Credible Sport was implemented.
“The Iranians took all the people at the embassy captive. They released some and ended up with 52 hostages who were there for 444 days of the last part of Carter’s presidency. They treated them terribly. Every night, they marched the hostages around a soccer field in Teheran,” Armitage said.
“It was a plain old soccer field with light poles going up. They were marching the hostages around and around (the soccer field) every night,” he said.
The military contracted with Lockheed to modify a C-130 Hercules to land in the soccer field Armitage estimated was about 200 yards long. The Army representative interviewed test pilots at Lockheed and chose Armitage to act as test pilot. “We were not heroes, we were just people who wanted to help get the hostages out,” Armitage said.
“We had the highest priority that you can get from the Defense Department to modify this C-130,” he said.
Lockheed modified the C-130 with rocket engines that attached to the plane. “To get in that short field, we had to be flying that plane as slow as it could go and still have control. At 50 feet we would fire lifting rockets, rockets that would fire straight up and stop the airplane downward motion. As soon as we got on the ground we would fire rockets to stop the forward motion. It was done by flipping a switch. By doing that we could land in about 200 feet, load up the hostages and fly home,” he said.
In October 1980, Armitage as airplane commander piloted 58 top-secret test flights into a simulated soccer field in Florida. Every time, one of seven pilots from Special Forces that he was training accompanied the flight. “We came in over the light poles. Fifty-eight times we were very successful. All of our landings were not beautiful landings but we got in,” he said.
On Oct. 29, 1980, the 59th test flight crashed due to malfunction of the rockets according to Armitage.
“Nobody got killed or anything like that. We hit so hard that both wings were broken off. We hit so hard, it drove the landing gear right up into the cockpit,” he said.
“The 59th time we crashed. There was nothing you could do about it. That was the end of getting the hostages out,” he said.
On Nov. 4, 1980, Carter lost the presidency. After Reagan was elected, all the hostages were released through negotiations in January 1981.
“I feel like the airplane had the capability of doing what we were trying to do. The men had the capability. But they rushed the program so much. It started out to be a program that we were going to get the hostages out of Iran and it slowly turned from a military operation to a political thing,” he said.
There are no regrets for Armitage.
“It was a good job for me. I was always curious about what made an airplane fly and when all these new things came out how did they affect the airplane. We did things that were never done,” Armitage said.