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The C-130 Hercules: Every Generation Gives Thanks For This Amazing Aircraft

Herk Driver: “The closest to hell I’ve ever been”

A C-130J "Super" Hercules from the 37th Airlift Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, GE, fly in a 10 ship formation over southern Germany, Oct. 5, during Europe's first Full-Spectrum Training Environment rotation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Stephen J. Otero)

The C-130 Hercules has been called the, “most remarkable plane ever produced.” And as a testament to its timelessness and unparalleled capabilities the C-130 is still in production 72 years later.  For generations now from Vietnam to Iraq, Hercules aircraft have proven to be the critical link in delivering troops and equipment right into the heart of the combat zone.

This video details the engineering, research and development that went into making one of America’s tried and true warrior birds the C-130 Hercules!

Veteran Aircraft

Many American and allied soldiers, marines, & airmen have depended on C-130 airdrop and airland operations where C-130 crews have dropped critical supplies or landed at fields under hostile fire delivering rations and ammunition, while taking out the wounded all in an effort to sustain the fight against our nation’s enemies from Vietnam to Iraq & Afghanistan.  It brought countless men and women home to their families and lifted the fallen venerably to their final resting place.

USAF C-130 taking off from Khe Sanh, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A symbol of hope, the C-130 “has brought food to the hungry, relief to victims of natural disasters and hope to remote corners of the earth.”  It has been adopted by over 60 countries and has been produced in over 70 commercial and military versions.  The Hercules worldwide fleet has over 19 million flight hours and an impressive safety record.  It is the workhorse of the jet age causing those familiar with its operation to refer to it as, “a one plane air force.”

Archived photo of the YC-130 Hercules during its ferry flight from Burbank, Calif. to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. August 23, 1954. The C-130 is still in production today, making it the longest running military aircraft production line in history. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Humble Origins

The U.S. Air Force outlined the original requirements for a transport aircraft in 1951, detailing a platform that was a mix of “truck, jeep & airplane.”

What the service needed was an aircraft capable of “hauling large bulky equipment, including artillery pieces and tanks, over long distances. It had to land in tight spaces, slow to 125 knots for paratroop drops, and fly, if need be, with one engine. What the Air Force wanted, in other words, was a tough, versatile heavylifter with plenty of “trunk” space,” and Lockheed delivered.

The film opens with Lockheed Martin conducting operational flight testing on the brand new medium weight troop & equipment transport aircraft in 1955 an aircraft that famed Lockheed aerospace engineer Kelly Johnson called, “the ugliest airplane” he’s ever seen.

The first prototype Lockheed YC-130 Hercules, 53-3397, takes of from the Lockheed Air terminal, Burbank, California, 23 August 1954. (Lockheed Martin)

Maiden Flight

The first flight of the YC-130A prototype was on 23 Aug 1954 at Burbank, CA.  After a 61 minute maiden flight the aircraft landed at Edwards Air Force Base where it completed its basic flight testing program. The C-130 assembly line was located at the Lockheed Georgia/Dobbins Air Force Base complex, which today houses production facilities for the C-130J.

High-Speed Taxi Runs

Manufacturing was well under way of the first six C-130s in Jan 1955.  The first aircraft was assigned the tail number 3001.  It was built with Alison T-56 engines and Curtiss Wright propellers. By late March 1956 the aircraft was completing “high speed taxi runs.” The film clearly shows the C-130 going airborne and flying just a few feet off the ground as it glides down the strip returning to the runway.    This is notably different from current high speed taxi protocols that only call for the test pilot to rotate the nose upward. The nosewheel rises while the aircraft remains firmly on the ground.

First Operational Test Flight

The first production C-130A broke terra firma at Dobbins Air Force Base on 7 April 1955 on its premiere flight.  The C-130A only used 800 feet of runway for its takeoff roll. The flight lasted 1:07 mins and the landing was executed with reverse thrust to a stop, using only 2000 feet of runway.  The C-130 successfully completed that flight commencing a new era in tactical airlift that has lasted to our present day.

USAF YC-130s 53-3396 c/n 1001 and 53-3397 c/n 1002

Mayhem In the Cargo Compartment

Current and veteran C-130 crews will respond with sarcasm and ridicule as the narrator declares that the, “changeover from cargo to personnel transport can take place in a matter of minutes”  The “reconfig” was an essential element to all Herk operations, and crews from Vietnam to Iraq have stories about the different techniques required to pop pins, remove the cargo rollers and setup the stanchions for troop or liter carrying.

To this day I am convinced the closest to hell I’ve ever been was during a “reconfig” of the herk in the sweltering heat of the Iraqi desert with all four engines running on the ground.  It was part of our daily operation to fly the C-130 loaded down with 56 troops with armed weapons and two pallets of gear to a remote field or Iraqi air base.  After a rapid descent we landed and taxied in to ramp a surrounded by concrete barriers to setup for an ERO – (Engine Running Offload/Onload).  At that point the aerial port team met with the loadmasters, routinely with much cursing and foot stomping to go over the details for the onload for the next leg of our pain train.

Herk carrying “56 & 2” – 56 soldiers and two pallets of gear rolling into Iraq. (Photo by Joe Vaeth)

Reconfig was a dreaded by but necessary part of our airlift operation.  A clear floor was needed to bring on vehicles and MRAPs.  Cargo pallets required floor rollers and to haul troops we had to replace the rollers and put up stanchions to hold the four rows of seats required to pack as much meat into the aircraft as possible, and you could forget about going to the bathroom on that leg because the urinal ejectors were at the back of the aircraft.  The C-130 could also be reconfigured to be an aerial hospital to accommodate 32 litter patients and a medical team and we transported dozens in need of aid to hospitals outside the combat zone.

Five MC-130J Commando IIs conduct low-level formation training over Clovis, N.M., Nov. 5, 2013. The New Mexico landscape provides an optimal training environment for aircrews to hone their skills to meet the needs of the 27th Special Operations Wing. The aircraft are from the 522nd Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Matthew Plew)

Multi Mission Capable Aircraft

Since its production the C-130 has proven to be most versatile and capable aircraft in the world.  It was built to be an incredible machine and its list of mission capabilities has proven to be endless.  C-130s have served our country and her servicemembers on every continent and in every major conflict since the Korean War.

C-130s are used as troop carriers, cargo airlifters, special ops infiltrators, search and rescue platforms, air ambulances and hospitals, electronic warfare, information operations, and the feared air attack of the C-130 gunships.  The aircraft have been used to mark icebergs in shipping channels, refuel helicopters in canyons, contain oil spills and douse flames with water and fire retardant.  On 13 April 2017 an MC-130 dropped the largest conventional explosive in the U.S. arsenal, the MOAB, destroying a mined ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan.

The C-130 Hercules is on course to become the first production aircraft in the U.S. Air Force to reach 100 years of service. It has proven to be the most dependable airframe in the world and it will keep right on flying into history time and time again. Avgeekery salutes all the men and women who have operated the C-130 and most especially those Vets who have caught a ride out of the combat zone sitting in one of those red seats.

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Joe Vaeth

Written by Joe Vaeth

Joe Vaeth is a life-long fan of all things aviation. Currently an airline pilot, his background includes over 10 years of flying C-130s for the U.S. Air Force and glider flying along the front range of the Colorado Rockies. He resides in Southern California with his wife and three children and has recently taken up cider brewing. He also enjoys, bike riding, kite flying & aerial photography.

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