C-130 Short Field Landings

C-130by L. D. Alford
Photo courtesy of U.S. Airforce

One of the most fascinating capabilities of the C-130, Hercules in all of its non-extended variants is the ability to conduct short field operations. Originally, the C-130 was called a STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) aircraft, but for some reason STOL stopped being applied to the aircraft. I suspect the reason was political. How could you ask congress for a new STOL aircraft? They’d easily answer – you already have one. Whatever you call it, any non-extended C-130 can takeoff and land within 3,000 feet under military specifications and unprepared fields. Military specifications means the Dead Sea to La Paz, Bolivia from -50 C to +50 C, and unprepared fields means a reasonably straight and level dirt road or field.

The C-130 can takeoff at around 155,000 (175,000 wartime) pounds and land at 130,000 pounds on dirt in the middle of nowhere. This always astonished me, and a short field landing became my favorite in the Herc. You can make short field landings in the weather from non-precision approaches, you can accomplish them with cargo and passengers, you can make them at night, and in Special Operations Low Level II (SOLL II), you can make them blind: in the weather, at night, with zero visibility. That will really put hair on your chest.

To make a short field landing, you first had to get the numbers from your flight engineer. He would work up the landing data based on the field elevation, pressure altitude, temperature, winds, and aircraft weight. The primary numbers necessary were landing distance, min control speed, maximum effort threshold speed, and maximum effort landing speed. Because of the name of the speed, “maximum effort threshold speed,” short field landings in C-130 are called Max Effort Landings. The maximum effort threshold speed was 1.28 times power off stall speed and maximum effort landing speed was 1.2 times power off stall speed.

Max effort landings were always made with full (100 0/0) flaps. Full flaps in a C-130 is an awe inspiring thing. Yes, it is the normal landing configuration, but C-130 flaps are literally barn doors. Four enormous fowler flaps, 2/3 the length of the wing, move outward and down to almost to 90 degrees with the wing. These flaps along with the overblown wing of the C-130 give it its outstanding short field capabilities. Because of the deck angle and the flare rotation, a full flap landing is one of the most difficult maneuvers for a new pilot in a C-130.

To make a max effort landing, you normally start at about 1,000 feet above the ground. You slow your C-130 and drop the gear and then the flaps incrementally as you reach the maximum flap extension speeds until full flaps. Most real maximum effort landings are accomplished on the battlefield, so getting configured in the shortest time and spending the shortest time at low speeds in the air is a good idea. Once you have the flaps down full, you slow to the max effort threshold speed and hold it. Airspeed control on a maximum effort landing is critical. Now you head for the runway and wait.

You wait for the 6 degree glidepath picture. The normal sight picture for an aircraft on approach is 3 degrees. A C-130 is one of the few aircraft in the world that can give you a stable full flap approach at 6 to 7 degrees. The trick is stability. The aircraft airspeed has to be steady at max effort threshold speed until you are ready to land. If you are much above 7 degrees, the speed will increase, and you when you try to pull back the power, the engine on the C-130 will kick into NTS (Negative Torque Sensing) and actually increase engine power. If you are too shallow, you’re just a wimp. No, not really, but for a real max effort landing, the trick is to get the aircraft on the steepest glidepath possible and the correct speed. I always told my students to wait until the flight engineer started to sweat profusely and began to stand up in his seat. That would be the right time to start down toward the runway.

Once you have the 6 degree site picture, you pull back the power and set a 6 degree glidepath. You push the nose over and set the site picture for 100 feet in the landing zone. The landing zone is the first 500 feet of the assault strip. If you don’t touch down in the first 500 feet, you must go around – you can’t stop a loaded C-130 in the remaining distance. My technique is to set the end of the runway as my initial landing picture. The reason for this is that I always planned to make a two step approach.

All max effort landings are really two step approaches. The technique comes out of how fast the last step is. Some pilots like to drive into the zone and swap ends at the last second – very short second step. I like to drive into the zone a little short and at about 50 to 100 feet pull back on the power and flare the aircraft. You basically set up a second glideslope and site picture. The reason for this is at 6 degrees the C-130 is coming down at about 1500 feet a minute. If you hit at that rate, the wings and the wheels are going to come off. If you transition to a normal landing picture at the end, you attain a standard rate 750 minute rate of descent, and finally touchdown below 300 feet per minute. A C-130 can touch down at 540 feet per minute – this will knock your teeth out, and if you are above 130,000 pounds will bust the aircraft. I always thought it was better to keep the landing descent rate below 300 feet per minute even on real assaults. On a real assault, you need to hit the turf at a pretty good rate. 300 feet per minute seems like a reasonable rate to me. On practice assaults on concrete runways, I planned to touch down with a kiss right in the zone and move forward from there. To recap, C-130s are built to touchdown firmly – like Navy pilots. But when you don’t have to grab a wire on a pitching carrier deck, I think this shows poor skill. I wanted to touchdown on concrete as sweetly as possible and on dirt at about 300 feet per minute. This is the primary reason for making a two step approach.

So you start down the approach at a 6 degree glidepath, 1500 feet per minute, screaming at the ground. At about 50 to 100 feet you transition to an aimpoint 100 feet into the zone. Power stays about the same point, but as you flare, the airspeed naturally comes back. At this point, you have lots of options. If it looks like you are going to touch right where you want, you continue pulling back on the stick and the aircraft settles gently right in the zone. If you did it right – perfectly at 100 feet. If you are undershooting, you can add a little power and pull back on the stick. This makes a very nice touchdown. If you are overshooting, you can pull off the power. It has an overblown wing; the C-130 will stop flying and drop like a rock. If you did everything else right, you will not break the aircraft. Like I said, a standard glideslope at the end – in a normal flare, you will be well below 300 feet per minute when you start across the zone. Pull the power off and you just plunk the plane down in the zone. If you are high enough to do damage, you need to go around. Your flight engineer will tell you – usually.

On one occasion my flight engineer didn’t. I was flying with an inexperienced crew and the engineer had not flown a lot of night, weather, or assaults. We were coming into Pope from a drop mission with the army and the weather was stinky. The ceiling was 500 feet with 1 1/2 mile visibility, and it was night. I briefed a TACAN approach, sidestep to the assault zone for a max effort landing. That way I could get a night and max effort landing and a non-precision instrument approach. It seemed like a good idea to me. The copilot had been with me before, and I done a similar landing then. I was the acting Chief of Training for the Wing and when you are in the Wing, you take every opportunity to get your flying requirements complete.

I flew a beautiful approach in the weather at night. When we broke out, the assault strip was lighted and I sidestepped and set up for the landing. I kept the aircraft at circling minimums, 680 feet, until I started down with a 6 degree slope. The flight engineer was literally standing up between the seats, and I asked, “You okay Eng?”

He kind of mumbled on the intercom, “Okay.”

As we closed with the ground, I could feel his eyes get bigger and bigger. When I pulled into an easy flare at the end and touched down with a kiss in the zone. He gave out a big sigh. The power came back, we went into reverse and stopped easily long before the end – we were pretty light.

As we taxied back, I asked the Flight Engineer, “Hey Eng. You have any problems with that landing?”

He shook his head, “That was a great landing, but I didn’t feel comfortable about the approach at all.”

Then I balled him out, and I let the rest of the crew to hear it too. My point to him and to the crew was that if you feel uncomfortable, you need to tell the pilot to go around. The place to give your complaints isn’t when you’re taxing back or a smoking hole, but when you have a chance to speak up. This engineer was not familiar with my flying or my techniques – that’s okay.

While I was at test pilot school, I had a chance to show the fighter guys what a C-130 can really do. One of the major check rides for everyone, fighter and heavy pilots alike, was the C-130 check. I was the only C-130 pilot in my class, so I briefed them on the tricks of the C-130 – and there are a lot. Plus all the flight test points were right in all the C-130 flight and engine envelope awkward areas. Usually, C-130 pilots do poorly on this check. I’m not sure what the reasoning is, but I didn’t have any problems, and the check pilot told me it was one of the best C-130 flight test check rides he had seen. I have to thank my flight test engineer, Psycho, who was fantastic and had all his stuff together. At the end of the flight, the landing was not graded, but the test pilot student (me) was expected to make it. I told the safety pilot, a C-130 instructor in the left seat, “I know you can’t let me do a max effort landing (wink, wink), but can I make a normal landing using max effort speeds and approach?”

He said, “You used to fly tactical at Pope – sure.”

To the Edwards runway, I made my normal max effort approach to a normal landing. We were hanging on the props. It was awesome. I put the airplane right at the maximum glidepath and held the speed right on to transition. The C-130B touched down without a bump. The Flight Engineer gave me, thumbs up, “Right on, sir.” And the instructor pilot seemed impressed. But the best part was, when I passed the plane to the instructor pilot to taxi and turned around, the check pilot and the check engineer were ashen. They were literally white and gripped their seat cushions with both hands. They had obviously never seen a C-130 max effort landing approach before.

I made a few poor max effort landings. In fact two were memorable. The first happened when my crew and I were called off a tactical training run to take “special” cargo to a “special” place. We had to go into the command post to get our frag and manifest, and since it was “special,” to sign the nondisclosure paper work. Now, what you promise to not ever disclose is where you went, what was on your aircraft, and who you took with you. I won’t tell you any of those things, just about the landing. We were supposed to land at a “special” field that had two runways each about 3000 feet long, concrete, but not good concrete. The guys on the ground, who were receiving the “special” cargo and passengers didn’t have any weather capability. They kind of guessed at the winds and told us which runway to use. That was okay, but the winds were obviously flaky – variable and big gusting. We set up for the max effort landing, and everything looked beautiful until just before touchdown. Right as I transitioned the aircraft to landing, we hit a windshear. I hadn’t even had a chance to pull back any power. The engineer kind of stood up and screamed, “Shear! Airspeed!” The airspeed dropped 10 knots and the aircraft tried to rotate to the right. I punched in the power and kicked in left rudder. The airplane was going to touch down no matter what I did. It touched down all right. I think my two step technique was the only thing that saved us from a really hard landing. We were already below 540 feet per minute and likely stuck the airplane on the concrete at something right at 300 or 400 feet per minute. Let’s just say, it got our attention. Afterwards, I was glad handed by our passengers. When the shear hit us, they thought we were going to die. The guys on the ground could even tell what happened.

On the other max effort, I only received complaints. Aviano Airport in Aviano, Italy was resurfacing its runway and the only place to land was the taxiway. The taxiway was exactly 3000 feet long. So what must a C-130 pilot do – a max effort landing. Unfortunately, our passengers weren’t your typical army soldiers or paratroopers. This time we were on a Med (Mediterranean) run carrying passengers, cargo, and the mail from Germany to Aviano. Many of the passengers were civilians traveling space A (space available) around Europe. I flew a great approach, but I touched down a little hard. When we let the passengers off, this old lady walked by me and mumbled, “That was the worst landing I have ever been through.”

I shrugged, “You’re walking away from it aren’t you.” That didn’t make her any happier. She glared at me, but what can you say – she got to experience a C-130 max effort landing.

– The End –