50 Years of Hercules

As utilitarian as a bucket and just as plain, Lockheed’s C-130 has flown almost everything to almost everywhere.

Resplendent in U.S. Navy Blue Angels livery, a Marine Corps C-130T fires its jet-assisted takeoff bottles, which add 8,000 pounds of thrust for a super-short takeoff. (Saul McSween/U.S. Navy)
Air & Space Magazine

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.

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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.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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