The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is the backbone of western military air transport
When military aviation gets discussed most of the attention goes to the latest high-tech combat aircraft or surveillance platforms. These are all essential systems of course, but the real backbones of most modern air forces are their tactical transport fleets. Troops on the ground can’t operate without a constant flow of supplies and often the best way to get ammunition, fuel, rations and other stores to where they’re needed is to load them into a transport aircraft and fly them there. A turboprop transport can cover distance ten times as fast as a ground convoy, avoid IEDs and ambushes, and deliver its load to a rough strip or by parachute. It’s an essential capability for any modern army, and in the west it’s often provided by the Lockheed C-130 Hercules.
During the Korean War the US Air Force was still using a range of WWII transport aircraft, including the famous C-47 Skytrain. These had performed well in the past but it slowly became obvious that they were now obsolete. They were slow, their passenger and cargo capacity was limited and many of them couldn’t carry vehicles, artillery pieces or other large items. In 1951 a request went out for a new transport, able to seat 92 passengers or up to 64 paratroopers and with a loading ramp to allow oversize equipment to be carried. A total of eleven designs were put forward and the winner was Lockheed’s entry, the Model 82. In December 1957 it entered service with the USAF as the C-130 Hercules.
The new aircraft was unlike any other transport aircraft that had ever flown. High-mounted wings kept the propellers and air intakes of its four big turboprop engines well clear of the ground, ideal for working from rough airfields. The undercarriage was low but sturdy, with four big main wheels mounted in pods down the fuselage sides to avoid taking up space inside. The nose was short and rounded with the cockpit set well forward to give the crew excellent visibility both on the ground and in the air. The fuselage itself was a fat cylinder with a huge rear loading ramp; anything that would fit inside the cargo compartment would fit through the door. Jump doors on each side allowed two sticks of paratroopers to exit at the same time and a third crew door at the front could also be used by passengers. The cargo compartment had rollers and freight rails built into the floor and came with a set of removable folding seats – a row each side running nearly the full length of the compartment and facing inwards, and twin outward-facing rows down the centre of the forward half. The seat supports were fitted with stretcher mounts allowing the plane to be rapidly reconfigured for casualty evacuation, and all doors came with folding steps so it could load or unload without support from ground equipment. The Hercules could fly with one engine shut down and land or take off in just over 1,000 metres. It was the perfect military transport.
The performance of the Hercules quickly attracted more customers; dozens of countries all over the world ordered them and it’s now used by a long list of countries including the UK, France, Israel, South Africa and Turkey. More than 2,300 have been built and the majority are still flying. It’s seen service in the Vietnam War, the Falklands War, the 1967 and 1873 Arab-Israeli wars, the Entebbe raid, the current operations in Afghanistan and a wide range of other conflicts, police actions and disaster relief efforts.
Starting with the C-130H variant stretched models became available, extending the fuselage length by 15 feet (4.5m) and increasing the interior space. The C-130J entered service in 1999 and has new engines and fully upgraded flight control systems. Available in both standard and stretched versions, Lockheed Martin are still making them – this means the C-130 has been in continuous production longer than any other military aircraft.
As well as the familiar transport versions the Hercules has also been adapted to a wide range of other roles. The MC-130J Commando II is a special operations support aircraft, capable of refuelling helicopters and acting as a command post for special forces missions. Ski-equipped Air National Guard C-130s provide the transport link to Amundsen-Scot Base at the South Pole. The Hercules has even been converted into a combat aircraft in the shape of the fearsome AC-130 Spectre. Designed to orbit a ground target and pound it with gunfire, this aircraft looks like a flying pirate ship – an array of gun barrels, including a 105mm howitzer, project from the left side of the fuselage. It carries an array of sensors to let it find and engage targets at night and in all weathers and it can precisely hit targets without endangering nearby friendly troops.
There have been several attempts to replace the Hercules, but most of them have ended up with a new order being placed for the big Lockheed transport. Now, 50 years after it first flew, the USAF is looking for a replacement again. One of the options is an enlarged C-130. Even if a different aircraft is chosen, though, the Hercules will stay in service around the world for decades to come.