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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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.

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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