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

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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.

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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