My country home in Utah’s “Dixie” at an altitude of about 3500 feet, sits atop a low plateau overlooking the flood plain through which the Virgin River cuts its way, against the backdrop of Wire Mesa to our south. It is a narrow defile, bounded by the stratified rocky walls of Zion Canyon, where bald eagles, red tail hawks and circling black vultures are a common sight. What was not so common was a vision accompanied - not so long ago - by the unmistakable thunder of four turboprop engines approaching from the west announcing a military C-130 Hercules cargo plane flying at an altitude roughly level with my rear deck and not more than 200-300 feet above the valley floor. The U.S. Air Force markings told me that what I was seeing was a “nap-of-the-earth” training mission on one hand, and an amazing low-altitude demonstration of the performance capabilities of one of the world’s most iconic airplanes on another.
On August 23rd, 1954 Lockheed test pilots Stanley Beltz and Roy Wimmer pushed the throttles forward on the flight deck of the first of two prototype YC-130s – this one bearing serial number 53-3397 -- to take to the air from Lockheed’s Burbank, California runway on what would be a 61 minute flight to Edwards Air Force Base. For the Lockheed “corporate family” this project was a gigantic gamble, and since signing the contract in 1951, the company had placed a lot of financial “eggs” in one basket. The objective was to produce a cargo plane capable of loading, transporting over great distances and quickly unloading large and heavy cargoes on rough, unfinished and short landing sites with the most economical fuel costs possible. Moreover, it should have the capability to carry and quickly deploy airborne troops and their equipment on short notice and in a wide range of environments. To make all this possible, Lockheed engineers designed a loading gate and hinged ramps at the rear of the fuselage as opposed to the awkward and limited-use front-loading design seen on the Korean War- era C-124 Globemaster, (on which the author made numerous heart-pounding journeys.)
As I write this column, exactly 60 years have passed since that maiden flight, over which time period more than 2500 “Hercs” have come off the Lockheed-Martin production line (and those of a sub-contractor or two) making it the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history. More than half of those are still flying today under the flags of 70 nations, the most recent versions of which – the C-130J – are fitted with Rolls Royce turbo-shaft engines and composite scimitar propellers producing nearly twice the horse power of its ancestors and with a significantly greater range. The “J” also features a computerized “glass” cockpit, comparable to the state-of-the-art convenience and safety of the best the commercial flying world has to offer.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the mighty Hercules is its extraordinary versatility. In addition to its military roles, it sees world-wide service in humanitarian relief efforts, Arctic resupply missions and weather reconnaissance in which its exceptional stability in rough flying conditions sees it flying into the heart of hurricanes every year. Increasingly, we see “Hercs” dropping fire retardant as it serves the U.S. Forest Service and Canada Natural Resources in fighting wild fires throughout North America.
The classic lines of the now sixty-year old C-130 Hercules mark it as one of the most recognized four-engine airlift “birds” around the world. U.S. Air Force Photo
High on my personal list of reasons for remembering this example of aviation history was the successful rescue of hijacked plane passengers from a remote location in Uganda in July 1976 by 103 courageous Israeli commandos. Flying more than 2400 miles in the process, it was a pair of C-130 “Hercs” that made the Entebbe Raid even possible, rendering a huge blow to terrorism and a tremendous boost to the morale of the infant nation of Israel. And when the U.S. made the final airlift departure from Viet Nam in 1975, it was a C-130 with an unbelievable 452 desperate evacuees clinging to freedom in its cargo bay that left rubber on that sad runway.
As I compose this “serenade” to a living piece of aviation history at age 60, I notice that it is also - and appropriately- National Aviation Day, marking also the birth of Orville Wright in 1871.
The crew of a C-130 gunship (“Specter”) deploy flares during a practice mission.
U.S. Air Force Photo