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 3 of 5)
Vietnam was a decade-long defining moment for the Hercules. The transport’s other oft-cited adventure lasted no longer than your average B-movie. On July 3, 1976, four Israeli Defense Force C-130s involved in Operation Thunderball flew 2,400 miles to Uganda, where members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were holding about 100 Israeli passengers from a hijacked Air France flight. The Herks carried some 250 commandos, several well-equipped jeeps, and a black Mercedes sedan similar to dictator Idi Amin’s personal vehicle. Approaching Entebbe near midnight, the lead Hercules, posing as an African airliner, was cleared to land. The other three followed close behind. The commandos moved out, led by the Mercedes, surprised the guards and hijackers, and rescued most of the hostages—two were lost in the firefight, and a few were wounded. An hour and a half after arriving in Entebbe, the last of the four Herks was airborne, heading for a refueling stop in Nairobi and then home.
An airplane that can do anything can’t always do everything. In 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, an attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran, self-destructed when a dust-blinded Marine Corps helicopter clipped one of six Herks waiting at a remote airfield code-named Desert One. A follow-on rescue scheme, Operation Credible Sport, added large retro-, lifting, and takeoff rockets to three C-130s, with the idea of landing commandos in a Tehran soccer stadium and flying the hostages out. During the first landing trial, the lift rockets failed to fire and the onboard computer triggered the upper retro-rockets prematurely, dropping the Herk to the ground. The crew got out, but the shattered aircraft was destroyed by fire. Before a second effort could be mounted, Iran agreed to free the hostages.
But the Hercules has pulled off stunts it was never designed to do. Lieutenant Jim Flatley, with Lieutenant Commander “Smokey” Stovall as copilot and aviation machinist mate Ed Brennan as flight engineer, landed a Marine Corps KC-130F on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal 18 times in the fall of 1963. (Visit www.airspacemag.com, Website, QT Sightings, “Hercules on Deck.”) The Navy was toying with the idea of using the transport as a carrier resupply—the Grumman C-1 onboard delivery aircraft in use at the time had a limited range and could not carry oversize payloads. “It was like landing on a normal runway,” Flatley reported in a 1999 issue of Skypower magazine, “but that big metal island was a bit scary.” With the Herk on a painted centerline, the right wingtip was only 15 feet from the superstructure. Despite the absence of a tailhook, Flatley includes his Forrestal Herk landings in the 1,608 traps he made before retiring as a rear admiral in 1987.
The Hercules also retrieved data from spy satellites, though not with telemetry. In the 1960s, U.S. spy satellites overflying the Soviet Union and China shot their images on film, which they then dropped over the Pacific. Crews in JC-130Bs would disperse along the expected trajectory at 20,000 feet, find the descending capsule, which was the size of a trash can, with their radar, and begin trying to snag the parachute with hooks and a large rope net. “Our motto was ‘Catch a Falling Star,’ ” recalls Al Blankenship, a retired master sergeant well-versed in C-130 satellite film retrieval systems. Crews made 40,000 recoveries, including operational and training catches. During Project Senior Bowl, Herk crews also caught an 800-pound data pack dropped by the Mach 3 D-21 ramjet-powered reconnaissance drone, initially launched by a modified A-12 (predecessor of the SR-71), and later by B-52 motherships.
Commando Solo Herks, festooned with antennas, are employed by the Air Force Special Operations Command to monitor and sometimes override radio and television broadcasts, advising combatants how they can surrender, how slim their chances are, and when they can expect the next air attack. Compass Call, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, uses EC-130Hs modified with waist pods and a ladder antenna under the tail to disrupt enemy ground communications. Combat Shadow’s main mission is refueling special-operations helicopters, low and slow, at night, during war. Combat Talon raises the bar on the “anything, anywhere” idea. “The C-130’s ideally suited for our type of mission—covert infiltration, resupply, extrication, any weather, any terrain,” says Major Bruce Taylor, who flies the Talon MC-130E. “I’ve taken this plane low-level through the Hindu Kush. Landed on the desert floor.”
The Talon is not your father’s Hercules. “We can go down to 175 feet without seeing anything outside, wingtips as close as 65 feet from the cliff wall,” Taylor says. “We have sophisticated electronic countermeasures equipment, a terrain-following system, forward-looking infrared camera, self-contained instrument approaches, and the short-field capability of a normal C-130.” The aircraft can drop the 15,000-pound BLU-82 and 21,700-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb. “Pretty much a normal heavy equipment drop, but you’ve got to be far away when it goes off,” says Taylor.
Herks have flown under 60 flags, but that first job is often just the beginning of a decades-long career. Aging C-130s round out Third World air forces or join the global fleet of tramp airlifters. “Gabon had four Herks,” says Gary L. Sims, a Lockheed field support engineer who helps countries care for their precious C-130s. “One military, three commercial. All four had names. People in the villages actually clapped when the planes came in. They brought family, food, animals, supplies, everything. In Niger, a mission that took a convoy of six trucks days to do could be done in one flight by the C-130, an hour and a half each way. For them it’s a scheduled airline.”
The C-130’s payload, autonomy, and ability to live rough has won favor with relief agencies everywhere. Nowhere has it served humanity better than with the United Nations World Food Program, the largest humanitarian undertaking extant. Last year the WFP delivered food to more than 104 million people in 81 countries. Since 2001, some 275,000 tons of food has arrived by air, much of it aboard C-130s, some chartered by the UN, others contributed by such governments as Japan, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, Britain, and the United States. In southern Sudan, where a combination of endless war and endless drought has created one of the great human crises of recent times, the WFP employed as many as eight C-130s. “We fly people to specific locations” to set up drop zones and markers and create an infrastructure on the ground, reports Jaco Klopper, former chief of air operations for the WFP in southern Sudan “The aircraft get sent out to drop the food.” Nine tons of bagged food is attached to a pallet with webbing. “Once the pallet goes out, it pulls a rope that frees bags from the webbing as they fall. It works quite well.” Each bag has three layers. The first bursts on impact, the second may tear, but “definitely not the third one.”