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C-130J, The High-Tech Millennial Grandchild Of The 63 Year Old Herc Turns 21

US Air Force C-130J in flight

On April 4th 1996, the prototype Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules flew for the first time. While the J model Herc looks a lot like its predecessors, there are more differences than meet the eye. One external cue is the presence of the six scimitar-bladed Dowty composite propellers, but the engines driving them are not the Allison T-56 turboshafts that have powered previous Hercules variants for the past 63 years. No, the C-130J is powered by more powerful and efficient Rolls-Royce (Allison) AE 2100 D3 turboshaft engines housed in revised nacelles. Those revised nacelles are another spotter’s tell. The rest of the differences between the J and previous models are primarily systems upgrades.


RAF Hercules C5 on approach.

The C-130J comes equipped with a Honeywell dual-embedded global positioning system / inertial navigation system (GPS/INS) along with an enhanced traffic alerting and collision avoidance system (E-TCAS), the SKE2000 station keeping system, the Northrop Grumman low-power color radar display with digital moving map, Elbit Systems global digital map unit, a ground collision avoidance system, the TacView portable mission display and InegrFlight commercial GPS landing system sensor unit, and an instrument landing system (ILS). In the cockpit the J model has dual Flight Dynamics head-up displays, four L-3 multifunction liquid crystal displays (LCDs) for flight control and navigation systems and additional LCDs for selectable systems displays. BAE Systems dual mission computers operate and monitor the aircraft systems and advise the crew of status. With all those black boxes the Super Herc should be able to fly itself!

US Marine Corps KC-130J tankers in flight

Defensive systems on board C-130Js include the ATK AN/AAR-47 missile warning system, the BAE Systems AN/ALR-56M radar warning receiver, the BAE Systems Integrated Defense Solutions AN/ALE-47 countermeasures system that can select and deploy chaff, flares, and POET and GEN-X active expendable decoys. Also included in the C-130J defensive systems suite is the Lockheed Martin AN/ALQ-157 Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM). Special missions C-130Js also sport next-generation radio frequency countermeasures (RFCM) systems designed to protect the Herc from anti-aircraft weapons, radars and other threats that use electromagnetic signals. The C-130J is not an easy aircraft to bring down.

US Coast Guard HC-130J in flight

The Lockheed (Lockheed Martin) C-130 Hercules series of tactical airlifter aircraft has been in continuous production longer than any military aircraft in history and has been in continuous service for 63 years and counting. The first customer for the C-130J model was the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the United Kingdom, which ordered 25 aircraft, taking delivery beginning in 1999. The RAF designations for their C-130Js are Hercules C5 (C-130J) and Hercules C4 (C-130J-30). The C-130J-30 adds an additional 15 total feet of cargo hold length to the basic C-130J aircraft. What may have sold the RAF on the C-130J is its improved performance. The J model Herc has 40% more range, a 21% higher maximum speed, and a 41% shorter takeoff distance than the previous C-130E and C-130H models.

US Air Force C-130J in flight

Normally a crew of three can handle the C-130J- two pilots and one loadmaster. No navigator or flight engineer is required for standard C-130J cargo or transport missions. However, special missions J Hercs such as the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, the EC-130J Commando Solo III broadcast communications bird, the MC-130J Commando II combat support tanker, the HC-130J Combat King II rescue support tanker, and the WC-130J Hurricane Hunter weather reconnaissance aircraft add additional systems and crew as necessary to perform their missions. These spec-ops birds are few in number but capable of many specialized high risk we-were-never-there missions.


US Marine Corps KC-130J with ISR / Weapon Mission Kit installed. Note Hellfire missiles under port wing

A unique capability of the Marine KC-130J tanker is the ability to add the ISR / Weapon Mission Kit. This kit enables the KC-130J to be able to serve as a gunship with the ability to fire Hellfire or Griffin missiles, deliver precision-guided bombs, and fire 30 millimeter cannon rounds at a variety of targets. Designated Harvest HAWK (Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit), the system can be added to or removed from the standard USMC KC-130J tanker in a single day. Though not equipped with quite the same sensors and systems as the Air Force Ghostriders, Marine Harvest HAWK KC-130Js pack quite a punch.

US Air Force C-130J in flight

C-130Js are used is to deploy The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS). MAFFS is a self-contained system that is loaded into the cargo hold of the C-130J (and other Herc variants) which adapts the Hercules to perform aerial tanker missions against wildfires. In turn the Hercules / MAFFS combination allows the United States Forest Service (USFS) to utilize Air Force Reserve (AFRES) and Air National Guard (ANG) Hercs as supplemental firefighting aircraft during peak fire conditions. The improved MAFFS II deployed for the first time aboard a C-130J during a July 2010 wildfire. The 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard was the first ANG or AFRES to transition to the MAFFS II system in 2008.

US Air Force C-130J in flight

In addition to the United States Air Force, United States Marine Corps, and the United States Coast Guard, current and planned operators of the C-130J Super Hercules include Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Libya, Mexico, Mongolia, Norway, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. The more than 300 C-130Js built by Lockheed Martin have collectively amassed more than one million flight hours. C-130Js have also seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector against Libya were supported by C-130Js as well.

US Coast Guard HC-130H (foreground) and HC-130J (background) in flight

Today the future for the Hercules looks bright. But the list of aircraft that have served as long as the Hercules has is mighty short. Someone always seems to be saying the Herc needs to be replaced. 63 years they say. Long in the tooth they say. Well the trouble with that is that even though a few have tried, no suitable replacement for this venerable airlifter has been rolled out yet. Let me know when that happens…if I’m still around myself that is!


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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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