50 Years of Hercules
As utilitarian as a bucket and just as plain, Lockheed's C-130 has flown almost everything to almost everywhere.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2004
Saul McSween/U.S. Navy
(Page 2 of 5)
In January 1951, Lockheed came to the Marietta facility, first to refurbish more than 100 B-29 Superfortresses for action in Korea, then to build 394 B-47 Stratojet bombers under license to Boeing. When C-130A production began, the plant was still turning out B-47s on a parallel assembly line. In April 1954, the Air Force asked for 20 more C-130s, and then, in September, 48 more; a year later, it would order another 84. Hawkins may have been the only one who lost money on the deal. “The tactical air commander was a real enthusiast,” he recalls. “ ‘The Air Force is doing this one right,’ he said. We were hoping they’d buy maybe 200. ‘I’ll bet we’ll buy more than 500 of these things.’ I bet him five bucks, and lost.”
A naming contest at the Marietta plant in the fall of 1954 brought in nearly 10,000 suggestions, with the favorite being “Griffin.” Whether this referred to the fabled eagle-lion hybrid or to Georgia’s then governor is not recorded, but Lockheed management opted for Hercules, the strongman of Greek mythology, with 160 votes; familiarly, Herk, or, intimately, Herky Bird.
The first production C-130A took off from a runway shared by Lockheed and Dobbins Air Force Base (now Air Reserve Base) on April 7, 1955, and, at Marietta, Edwards, and Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, the big transport was run through its paces. The most serious glitch was a mismatch between the Allison T56 engine and the Curtiss-Wright turbo-electric propellers, which had pitch-setting problems causing the engines to surge. A switch to hydraulically actuated props solved the problem.
Over time, the three-blade propellers were replaced by four-blade Hamilton Standards, the original Allisons by more powerful Rolls Royce Allison engines, and the “Roman nose” radome of the early A models by the “Pinocchio nose.” Models were fielded with fuselages lengthened by as much as 15 feet. A commercial counterpart, the L-100, was put on the market.
But two things never changed: Riding in the cargo hold of a C-130 is still a class below steerage, and, from the first A model to today’s spanking new J, from the first hour of flight to the 20 millionth, the airplane has been fun to fly. Pilots stepping up from piston-engine transports in the 1950s got roses in their cheeks when they flew the C-130. Compared to its contemporaries, the Herk felt like a fighter. “Good roll rate, nimble,” says Lieutenant Colonel Tom Powers, who flies C-130Es out of Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. “You can get down in the valleys, follow the river bank. It’s a smaller aircraft, so you get to be in harm’s way. We get the flying missions the other, bigger aircraft don’t.”
While the Hercules had been created for the Korean conflict, it missed that war. Its destiny lay in the lush folds of Indochina. A decade of Vietnam service caused the airplane to be reinvented, then reinvented again. Add cannon and side-firing weapons to fuselage portals and you had a gunship. Roll explosive canisters out the ramp and you had a bomber. Add fuel hoses and you had a tanker. You could spray herbicides and cloud-seeding chemicals from it. You could drop flammables and fire-suppressants. Add instrumentation and you had a weather researcher and hurricane penetrator. Add catfish-like whiskers and you could snag a cable attached to a balloon and pluck downed comrades out of the jungle. But mainly the Hercules was how people got from airstrip to airstrip, and where isolated forward bases got much of the food, bullets, and reinforcements to keep them in business.
The emblematic C-130 trial was at Khe Sanh, a patch of ground held by Marines near the demilitarized zone separating the two Vietnams. The remote base came under siege in June 1967, and by the end of January 1968 was cut off from ground resupply. With the site encircled and pounded by enemy artillery, the situation bore a chilling resemblance to Dien Bien Phu, where in the spring of 1954 French troops had been surrounded, then shelled and starved into surrender. Thereafter, nothing came into Khe Sanh that did not come in by air, and much of that arrived aboard a Hercules. When they couldn’t land, they dropped cargo by parachute. They also employed a dicey tactic called LAPES—low-altitude parachute extraction system—with parachutes rigged to pull containers out of the cargo hold just a few feet above the surface and drop them.
The Herk’s long Vietnam career ended late in April 1975, when the last C-130 departed Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut base. Around 9 a.m., Tim Nguyen, a former Vietnam air force officer (now a senior staff engineer at Lockheed Martin) and some comrades headed for the flightline, where they found the C-130 taxiing with its ramp down. They and many others scampered aboard. “This was a C-130A, three-bladed propellers, smaller engines,” he recalls. “I don’t think the pilot knew how many people were in the back. The loadmaster managed to shut the ramp. After takeoff, we were flying low for miles. We were afraid soldiers would shoot us down. When we landed at an American base in Thailand, I was almost at the back and got out first. I looked at the people coming out…452 people, 34 on the flight deck.”