The legendary C-130 is one of the most famous aircraft in the history of military aviation. It is an aircraft which has flown to all the continents across the world, and it is capable of, with its multiple variants, getting the job done on a variety of missions. It has been a transport aircraft, an ambulance, a gunship, a hurricane-hunter and many more.
Operated by more than 70 Air Forces and civilian users, the Hercules is the military aircraft with the longest and continuous production run in history. Its origin dates back to the Korean War.
The birth of the C-130
When the USA entered the Korean War, the United States Air Force realized that they needed a highly capable cargo aircraft, which would be able to land on short and unprepared runways amongst a range of other things. To fill this need, the Air Force Tactical Air Command opened a tender for a medium airlifter in 1951. Nine companies proposed their projects, and Lockheed’s proposal was chosen. Two YC-130 prototypes were built, and the first flight occurred three years later at Burbank’s Lockheed facility. Eventually, Lockheed won a production contract.
The newborn C-130A Hercules entered service in 1956. The aircraft featured four Allison T56 turboprop engines with the distinctive three-bladed propellers. Two external underwing tanks were added to increase range. Later variants of the Hercules (excluding the J version) moved to the four-bladed propellers, and many of them still fly today.
Combat action and operational history
The first Hercules crash occurred in 1958 when four Soviet MiG-17s shot down a C-130A over Armenia during a reconnaissance mission.
In 1953 the C-130 Hercules became the largest aircraft to ever land on an aircraft carrier. This record was achieved by a USMC KC-130, which made 29 touch-and-go landings, 21 unarrested landings and 21 unassisted take-offs on USS Forrestal.
In 1964 USAF C-130s were deployed to Vietnam, where C-130s from 6315th Operations Group flew Forward Air Control missions in support of USAF bombers that were participating in strike missions over Laos during the early years of Vietnam War. Hercs were also used in reconnaissance missions and to deliver chemicals to affect the enemy’s transport lines. A total of seventy C-130 were lost by the US Air Force and the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.
The first AC-130 Spectre Gunships from 16th Special Operations Wing arrived in Vietnam in 1967 and provided ground attack and Close Air Support missions against the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. These heavily armed Hercs were equipped with miniguns, rotary cannons and even a 105mm cannon. During the Vietnam War, a total of six gunships were lost due to enemy fire.
In 1968 C-130s from the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing were used to drop bombs to clear helicopter landing zones in Vietnam. Meanwhile, on another continent in 1964, USAF C-130s made the history in the Operation Dragon Rouge, dropping and airlifting a group of Belgian paratroopers over the Belgian Congo to rescue hostages held by Simba rebels.
In 1969, a USAF C-130 parachute-dropped two sensors near a Chinese nuclear facility to collect data about Chinese atomic capabilities.
C-130s also conducted resupply and attack missions in the invasion of Afghanistan and, two years later, of Iraq.
The aircraft also play an important role in containing natural disasters, dropping oil dispersant over large oil spills and launching water and retardant to fight fires. In 2017 C-130s sprayed mosquito control liquids over bodies of water in Texas created by Hurricane Harvey.
Interestingly, a former RAF C-130 served as a testbed for the engines of its European competitor the A400.
The most versatile aircraft ever?
The C-130 is produced in many variants for different types of missions; these are the most relevant:
- AC-130: a gunship variant of the Hercules: the latest version can accommodate a 30mm autocannon and a 105mm howitzer cannon, as well as guided missiles and bombs
- C-130: the traditional airframe, it shares most of its features with the other variants. These include: a loading ramp and door, a 12.5 meters cargo compartment that can carry 90 troopers or 634 paratroopers, as well as utility helicopters and armoured vehicles
- C-130-30: a stretched version of the Hercules, with improved cargo compartment
- EC-130: electronic warfare variant of the Hercules
- HC-130: Search And Rescue variant of the Hercules, mainly operated by the US Coast Guard
- KC-130: Hercules with aerial refuelling capabilities
- LC-130: Hercules capable of landing on ice and snow thanks to skis. LC-130s regularly fly to Greenland and Antarctica
- MC-130: multi-mission aircraft, designed for infiltration, exfiltration, aerial refuelling and reconnaissance mission
- PC-130: Maritime Patrol variant of the Hercules
- RC-130: reconnaissance aircraft
- WC-130: weather reconnaissance aircraft, capable of hurricane-hunting
- YC-130: the first prototype of the Hercules
- L-100: civilian variant of the C-130, operated by seven cargo companies.
No other aircraft in the world can accomplish all these missions, thus allowing the C-130 to have the title of most versatile aircraft ever.