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
ON AUGUST 23, 1954, LOCKHEED TEST PILOTS Stan Beltz and Roy Wimmer powered up the latest of their company’s improbable designs, and after an 855-foot ground roll, pulled it up into the southern California sky on its first flight, bound for Edwards Air Force Base. Designated the YC-130A, the new airplane was the second of two prototypes built at Lockheed’s Burbank plant. The aircraft looked nothing like its contemporaries. Its wings lay like a plank balanced on beefy shoulders. Power came not from great reciprocating radials but four General Motors Allison turboprops. Its aft fuselage sharpened to form a wedge capped by an enormous vertical fin. Its narrow landing gear dropped out of pods on the fuselage. Its flight deck lay beneath a multi-pane greenhouse and above a beak-like nose. It had an earnest, surprised, round face that only, as some have opined, a mother could love.
Indeed, by Lockheed standards, the newcomer was exceedingly plain; one might have asked how a company that produced such glamorous aircraft as the Lightning, Constellation, Shooting Star, and U-2 could have brought forth the Hercules. But this ugly duckling would grow into something much greater than a swan. In time, the plangent roar of its engines would signal that help, in the form of food, fuel, medicine, materiel, or firepower, was at hand.
It began with a Request for Proposal for Medium Cargo Airplane, a modest document issued by the U.S. Air Force on February 2, 1951, during the first year of the Korean War. U.S. military transports then consisted of Fairchild’s C-119B Flying Boxcar and the C-123 Provider, both powered by twin piston engines, and such World War II leftovers as the C-47 and C-54. Long-distance hauling was left to the four-engine C-124A Globemaster II, a huge double-decker fuselage astride a familiar Douglas wing. The Air Force asked for an airplane that would carry a 25,000-pound payload over a 1,150-mile radius of action, and 20,000 pounds for 2,530 miles.
A probably apocryphal account has engineers at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base measuring the interior of a railroad box car to size this imaginary airplane. “When we got the request,” says Willis Hawkins, then with Lockheed’s advanced design department, “Hibbard [Hall J. Hibbard, Lockheed’s chief engineer] asked us to look it over.” At the time Lockheed’s only four-engine design was the Constellation. For the C-130, Hawkins says, “there was no preceding model. A clean piece of paper.”
Hawkins and his team sized the new airplane around high-use equipment. The height (nine feet) and width (10 feet) of the cargo compartment accommodated the Army’s M5A-3 High-Speed Tractor with its top gun stowed. Length was based on what a 1.5-ton truck and semi-trailer would need: 41 feet. “We saw to it that the structure had no obstructions to loads coming in the back door,” Hawkins says. “It was designed to be used in a tactical situation where there weren’t any nice, clean places to take care of it.
“We picked a turboprop engine, which was pretty new for those days,” he says. “We thought the powerplant would have a lot of stretch in it. Propellers were high to keep the powerplant out of the dust and dirt. Narrow undercarriage so you could operate from roads. Getting paratroopers out, dumping loads, dictated where to put the doors.” There was never any thought of a forward ramp of the kind on the C-124. “A nose door got you all involved with the cockpit,” Hawkins explains.
With design in hand, Hawkins and his team went to Hibbard to have their proposal approved. “We had a small model, 15 inches. ‘Has Kelly seen this?’ Hibbard wanted to know,” referring to Clarence J. “Kelly” Johnson of Skunk Works fame, then Hibbard’s assistant. “ ‘Kelly better see it before we send it in.’ Nobody’d seen Kelly in weeks, but he came in. He looked at the model, then he looked at Hibbard. ‘Hibbard,’ he said, ‘if you send this proposal in, you’ll destroy the Lockheed Company.’ Kelly didn’t like it because it didn’t go Mach 3 or shoot or drop bombs,” Hawkins says. “But we finally convinced Hibbard: The thing is due, we have to get it mailed today. So we did. And lo and behold, we won.”
On July 2, 1951, Lockheed was awarded a contract for two prototypes. Just over a year later, the Air Force asked for seven production airplanes—this nearly two years before Beltz and Wimmer made their first flight in the prototype. The company moved C-130 production from Burbank, where space was limited, to Marietta, Georgia. The town’s confluence of railroads, which had attracted William T. Sherman as a potential supply line during his Civil War march to the sea, led World War II planners in 1942 to construct a sprawling aircraft factory. At its peak, the plant employed 28,000 people. Under license from Boeing, Bell Aircraft built 668 B-29s—what locals still call the Bell Bomber—between November 1943 and V-J day. Within a month of victory in the Pacific, however, the plant was closed, and the workers returned to the rural Georgia economy.
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.”
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.”
Klopper continues: “We fly 10 hours a day, first light to last light. We refuel the airplane as it’s being reloaded. Turnaround time is about 15 to 20 minutes. If it wasn’t for the C-130s, a large number of people would have died.”
The airplane that the hungry or besieged or devastated listen for still rolls off the assembly line at Lockheed-Martin Aeronautical Systems’ Marietta plant, where all C-130s except the two prototypes were built. At age 50, the C-130 is the military airplane with the longest continuous production run in history. (Only Raytheon’s Beechcraft Bonanza has had a longer unbroken production run.) As you read this, Hercules no. 2,275—one of the new KC-130J tanker models—is emerging into the Georgia sunshine, bound for the U.S. Marine Corps. F/A-22 Raptors take shape in one quadrant of the building, but most of the space is used for the C-130 line, where 12 of the big transports are built a year.
The new C-130s look much as they always have: heavy shouldered, earnest, powerful. But the familiar exterior hides a much different airplane. The C-130J’s range is 50 percent greater than the A’s; gross weight has increased by 25 percent. And it is harder to shoot down, thanks to defensive sysems developed in part by Tim Nguyen, who once feared his overladen C-130A was too easy a target. As for available power, Lockheed chief pilot Bob Hill says, “If you took a guy and put him down in an A model after he’d been flying a J model, he’d think he didn’t have any engines.” The engines deliver nearly 30 percent more thrust than those on the H model. All told, the differences are substantial enough that Lockheed calls the J model the Super Hercules.
Internally, little remains of the airplane’s 1950s heritage. The design conceived in the non-digital past has been tailored for the new century. The tiny engine gauges are gone, replaced by liquid crystal displays, as are the flight engineer and navigator. One pilot flies, the other talks to the computers.
“Everything is monitored,” says Bob Hill. “The airplane tells the pilots every little thing that happens, in ascending grades of urgency. After both main computers fail, you’re still better equipped to make an instrument approach than the mid-run H model. When everything’s ticking right along, the GPS antenna is probably within eight feet of where it says it is.”
Hill, a Marietta native who started at Lockheed in 1951, demonstrates the Super Hercules to prospective buyers, showing them, for example, how one might haul a 38,000-pound tractor from La Paz to a 4,000-foot strip in the Bolivian Amazon, or how an Indian C-130J might drop 22,000 pounds of kerosene to troops in Kashmir’s mountains—after losing an engine on takeoff from a field 15,000 feet above sea level.
Already the Super Hercules seems to be everywhere. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair set foot in Basra in May 2003, it was from the ramp of a Royal Air Force C-130J. An Italian Super Herk took the exiled king of Afghanistan back to Kabul in April 2002. As for the future, there seems to be no competitor in sight. Most people believe the Hercules production line in Marietta will celebrate a diamond jubilee. Around U.S. Air Materiel Command, it’s said that when they fly the last McDonnell Douglas/Boeing C-17 transport to the boneyard—the last batch of which is slated for production in 2008—the crew will fly back aboard a Hercules.
Sidebar: Lockheed C-130J Super Hercules: 50 Years of Airlift Heritage
THE C-130J IS THE MOST RECENT AND ADVANCED version of Lockheed Martin’s legendary airlifter, which the company has sold to 60 nations. Designed around a crew of three through use of extensive digital automation, sensors, and mission-management systems, it is available in two versions, the J, with a 40-foot cabin, and the J-30, which has a 55-foot cargo hold that provides seats for up to 92 paratroopers and capacity for seven cargo pallets. It is fully night-mission-capable and can deliver cargo with pinpoint accuracy using its aerial delivery radar system and mission computers. The Super Hercules can refuel in the air and is delivered with an integrated defensive electronics system that senses and counters radar and infrared missiles with jamming and automatic chaff and flare dispensers. For more information, browse http://www.lmasc.lmco.com/busdev/airlift/c130/c130j.html
-Two-pilot flight deck, all-digital, liquid-crystal displays
-Dual mission computers
-Lighting compatible with night-vision goggles
-Holographic head-up displays
-Digital moving map display
-Laser-gyro inertial/GPS satellite/radio-frequency navigation management
-Built-in test equipment/maintenance fault recorder
Crew 3 (2 pilots, 1 loadmaster)
Range 3,265 miles
Maximum ceiling 30,560 feet
Maximum cruise 401 mph (348 knots)
Maximum-performance takeoff run 1,800 feet
Landing distance 1,400 feet
Cabin volume J: 4,551 cubic feet; J-30: 6,022 cubic feet
-Hydraulics: 3,000 pounds per square inch
-Electrical power: 5 AC 40-kilowatt alternators
-All-weather day/night precision radar-based automatic cargo delivery
-Cabin pressurization: 7.5 pounds per square inch
-Integrated defense system
-Dual-rail cargo system for pallets/containers
-Digital autopilot with autothrottle
Rolls-Royce AE 2100 turboprop engine
-4,591 shaft horsepower
-Weight: 1,640 pounds
-Two shafts, 14-stage compressor
-Dual full-authority digital engine control
-Matched with six-blade Dowty R391 propeller