C-130 Hercules: Air Force's 'old reliable' airlifter still on the front lines

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Pick any day for airlift operations in Afghanistan and there's a high probability you'll see a C-130 Hercules taking off from a forward operating base filled with cargo and troops.

You also might see a C-130 cruising between Afghan mountain peaks on an airdrop mission directly supplying the "beans and bullets" to troops on the ground. Since 1956, it's been operations like those for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan where the C-130 has proved its worth time and time again.

Historical airframe

The initial production model was the C-130A.  A total of 219 were ordered and deliveries began in December 1956. In May 1959, the first of 34 C-130Bs entered Air Force service.

In August 1962, C-130Es came into service. They originally were designed for Tactical Air Command as a "short-range assault transport" to support the U.S. Army's airborne operations, according to the Air Mobility Command history publication, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime: An Illustrated History of the Military Airlift Command, 1941-1991." The first C-130E assigned to the Air Force went to the 1608th Air Transport Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., now Joint Base Charleston.

As the C-130 saw more and more service, particularly during the Vietnam War, the airframe gained a reputation as a reliable plane with improved capabilities over older airlifters.

"Military Air Transport Service aircrews did find the Hercules rugged and dependable for theater operations where its airborne, short-field landing, and straight-in, truck bed, rear-loading capabilities were especially needed," the history publication states. "As an interim strategic transporter, the C-130E gave MATS the capability to traverse the Atlantic Ocean nonstop and cross the Pacific with one refueling stop."

During the Vietnam War, the C-130 was part of an effort that was unprecedented until that time, history shows. Between 1962 and 1973, C-130s were part of an overall airlift force that saw transports from both MAC and TAC deliver the equivalent of more than 7 million tons passengers and cargo within the deployed area of operations.

"By comparison, allied aircraft carried about 2 million tons during the Berlin Airlift and three-quarters of a million tons during the Korean War," the history publication states.

Also during the Vietnam War, the C-130 largely gained a reputation as a "tactical" airlifter because of its airdrop and air-land mission capabilities. However, the history publication states the "so-called 'tactical' C-130, originally designed as a strategic airlifter, often performed 'strategic' missions." The C-130 proved, in essence, that airlift doctrine "was not absolute" and this type of flexibility in airlift capability would continue with the C-130 as well as other airlift airframes.

Why it's an 'old reliable'

According to an AMC talking paper from December 2010, the C-130 "enables AMC's rapid, tactical mobility airlift into austere airfields and flies both airdrop and aeromedical evacuation missions."

Facts show the C-130 does that and more. Its Air Force fact sheet states, "Basic and specialized versions of the airframe perform a diverse number of roles, including airlift support, Antarctic resupply, aeromedical missions, weather reconnaissance, aerial spray missions, firefighting duties for the U.S. Forest Service and natural disaster relief missions."

To do such a wide variety of missions, flexibility is important.

"Using its aft loading ramp and door, the C-130 can accommodate a wide variety of oversized cargo, including everything from utility helicopters and six-wheeled armored vehicles to standard palletized cargo and military personnel," the fact sheet states. "In an aerial delivery role, it can airdrop loads up to 42,000 pounds or use its high-flotation landing gear to land and deliver cargo on rough, dirt strips."

The flexible design of the C-130 also "enables it to be configured for many different missions, allowing for one aircraft to perform the role of many. Much of the special mission equipment added to the Hercules is removable, allowing the aircraft to revert back to its cargo delivery role if desired. Additionally, the C-130 can be rapidly reconfigured for the various types of cargo such as palletized equipment, floor-loaded material, airdrop platforms, Container Delivery System bundles, vehicles and personnel or aeromedical evacuation."

In addition to the C-130E, other variants of the airframe include the C-130H and the C-130J. The C-130J is the newest. In a December AMC talking paper, it shows the C-130J, with its three-person crew and improved performance, "is designed to replace the oldest C-130 legacy aircraft."

"The extended (by 15 feet) fuselage provides additional cargo carrying capacity for the Air Force combat delivery mission," the talking paper shows. "The C-130J, with its increased cargo capacity, improved performance and modern avionics is quickly becoming the weapon system of choice for intra-theater airlift."

Ironically, C-130Es were flying when the C-124 Globemaster II was still in service. Though C-130Es are on their way to being retired, there are many still flying.  After 54 years of service, aircrew members say the C-130 is as important, and reliable, now as it has ever been for the worldwide airlift effort by the Air Force and Air Mobility Command.

"The C-130 is the up-close and personal arm of this support chain, often exposing itself and crew to direct hostilities to provide a responsive level of support and becoming intermingled with the warfighter it is tasked to support," said Master Sgt. John Gorsuch, a member of Headquarters AMC's Air Operations Squadron Detachment 5 at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base in St. Joseph, Mo.

Sergeant Gorsuch, a career 16-year C-130 loadmaster, serves as an instructor in the Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center. He's trained in every aspect of the C-130 loadmaster job, and in his current position he passes on his experience and knowledge to students in airlift career fields from across the U.S. military and the globe.

"The C-130 supports both direct engagement with the enemy and provides (troops on the ground) with timely sustainment on a scale unmatched anywhere in the world," Sergeant Gorsuch said. "To add to this capability, any aircrew in AMC, including in the C-130, can switch from executing a combat mission to supporting humanitarian missions in the blink of an eye."

Mission success in 2010

Regardless of whether the plane is an aging C-130E model or the new C-130J Super Hercules, the airframe is highly valued for its capabilities every day, either for combat or humanitarian missions. By simply looking at the numbers for 2010, it's easy to see why.

For example, in supporting airdrops in Afghanistan in 2010, C-130s and the Airmen who fly them and maintain them have been part of a record year. Through Nov. 30, Air Forces Central statistics show more than 52.6 million pounds of cargo have been airdropped in Afghanistan. That's already 20 million more pounds than what was delivered the previous record year of 2009.

The C-130 also was involved in supporting a "first" in 2010, an AFCENT news report shows.  In March, a C-130 completed the first low-cost, low altitude airdrop in Afghanistan.  That was accomplished by dropping bundles weighing 80 to 500 pounds, with pre-packed expendable parachutes, in groups of up to four bundles per pass.

The drops are termed "low-cost" reflecting the relative expense of the expendable parachutes compared to their more durable, but pricier nylon counterparts, the report said. "Low-altitude" alludes to the relative height from which bundles are released from the aircraft.

Also, as of Nov. 30, C-130s have been one of the airframes helping achieve high airlift results in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility for intra-theater airlift. Statistics show there have been nearly 1.3 million airlift passengers and 265,600 tons of cargo moved.

In supporting 2010 humanitarian missions, C-130s also have been crucial in their support. During Operation Unified Response in January, AMC Airmen delivered more than 13,600 short tons of cargo to Haiti and C-130s were in the middle of the action. They also transported more than 25,800 passengers and moved more than 280 patients for aeromedical evacuation, statistics show.

During Pakistan flood relief efforts from July 29 to Oct. 3, Air Force support included using C-130s and C-17s, records show. A C-130 was the first to deliver assistance, delivering 8,000 Halal meals from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Overall, according to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, C-17 and C-130 aircraft and their aircrews worked in close partnership with Pakistan's military and National Disaster Management Authority to transport more than 5.5 million pounds to flood victims nationwide.

Changing times, promising future

On Nov. 29, C-130E Hercules aircraft 62-1788 was flown from Little Rock AFB, Ark., to Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., to be retired from service. It marked the beginning of an effort that will see most C-130Es retired by September 2011.

Col. Mark Czelusta, the h314th Airlift Wing commander and a veteran C-130 pilot, may have said it best on reflecting why C-130s are so cherished by those who fly them, maintain them and work with them.

"It's hard to believe that by September, the (Air Force) will no longer fly these venerable planes," Colonel Czelusta said in a Dec. 9 news report by 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs. "With more than 35,000 hours on each airframe, each tail number developed its own personality over the years. The newer C-130Hs and the most advanced C-130Js are doing phenomenally well, and they will certainly develop their own personalities over time -- many already have -- but the E-model fleet is special. They are like family members to the men and women who maintain and fly them."

(Tech. Sgt. Joe Kapinos, 319th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, and Capt. Joe Knable, 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this report.)