At two-forty-five PM on a smoggy August 23, 1954 afternoon, the prototype for the next century of transports took to the air in Burbank California, carrying with it Lockheed’s extravagant hopes for a production run of as many as one hundred aircraft.

C-130 Golden Anniversary

Even its most ardent supporters could not have forecast that the C-130 would have the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history, with deliveries running from as high as 140 annually to as low as one per month. The Hercules is now eligible to join AARP, and still under its original type certificate, it remains production fifty years later. More than 2,262 aircraft have been delivered to 60 countries, and there is a firm backlog of 71 aircraft for the latest version, the C-130J.

Nor would anyone have believed that an aircraft designed to be a work horse “trash-hauler” would assume such an endless variety of missions. It has dropped bombs, supplies and paratroops; jammed electronic transmissions, fought fires, tracked icebergs, flown in hurricanes, carried live whales and camels, carried Muslims to Mecca, brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and landed on an aircraft carrier. Four C-130s were used to form the Flying Horseman aerobatic team. The Herk has flown to most countries and every continent in the world, including both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and for the last fifty years usually been the first plane at the latest trouble spot. Its military uses include those of gunship, tanker, bomber, drone mother-ship, psychological warfare, special operations, electronic intelligence, command and control and many more. To many people however, the most gratifying role of the C-130 has been that of compassionate relief, for it has provided aid to disaster areas wherever they occur in the world.

The Air Force’s experience with cargo aircraft early in the Korean War made it evident that a more capable transport was required. The Fairchild C-119 proved to be only marginally more effective (and much less reliable) than the Douglas C-47s and Curtiss C-46s from World War II. Thus it was that on February 2, 1951, the Air Force put forth a General Operational Requirement (see sidebar one) that called for a massive leap forward in cargo aircraft capability. Lockheed, Boeing, Douglas and Fairchild were invited to compete for the contract.

All of the specifications for range, load and operating conditions were formidable, but the most daunting was the ability to fly with a full load with one engine out. In the past, twin-engine aircraft, especially those operating out of short fields in forward areas, often could not survive the loss of an engine on a heavy-weight takeoff.

Willis Hawkins, then head of preliminary design for Lockheed, put together a team of veteran Lockheed engineers that included Eugene Frost, Art Flock and Dick Pulver, all of whom had worked together on previous projects. Notably absent from the team was Lockheed’s most well-known engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who was deeply involved in the F-104 project, and who perhaps regarded a cargo carrying transport as too pedestrian for his interests.

By June, 1951, Hawkins’ team brought the completed proposal for the new Model 82 aircraft to Hall Hibbard, Lockheed’s chief of engineering. (The entire proposal was less than three-quarters of an inch thick, an amazing contrast to today’s multi-volume, multiple thousand page submissions.) Hibbard asked “Has Kelly seen this?” and when Hawkins said no, asked that Johnson come in.

Kelly went through the drawings, glanced at the model Hawkins had provided, and said “Hibbard, if you send that in, you’ll destroy Lockheed.” Johnson’s reaction to the C-130 was based in part on aesthetics. Lockheed had always been noted for beautiful aircraft, from the early Vega through the P-38 and Constellation, and the Hercules, as it became known later, was not exactly beautiful. Fortunately Hawkins persisted and Hibbard backed him. They knew that despite its plain looks, the C-130 was a radically advanced transport, using four Allison T56 turboprop engines and featuring a completely pressurized cargo compartment. Form had followed function to the letter, and the heart of the aircraft was the huge 4,500 cubic foot cargo area that duplicated the volume of the standard American railroad box car. The use of a high wing and the rugged dual-tandem wheel landing gear system, mounted in stub-like fairings outside the fuselage, improved its short, rough field capabilities. (See sidebar four)

Lockheed easily won the competition and a contract was let for the construction of the first two prototypes, which were built in Burbank. When the Air Force issued a letter contract for an initial batch of seven production C-130A aircraft, a decision was made to move the program to Marietta, Georgia, where Lockheed had been manufacturing Boeing B-47s under license. The production of B-47s was coming to a close and the C-130 program was perfectly timed to pick up the slack.

It was the second of the two Burbank-built C-130 prototypes (53-3397) that made the first flight. Stan Beltz and Roy Wimmer were the pilots with Jack Real as flight test engineer and Dick Stanton as flight engineer. Kelly Johnson, all his reservations about the new transport, flew in a Lockheed P2V Neptune chase plane. After a satisfying sixty-one minute flight, they landed the YC-130 at Edwards Air Force Base for further tests.

These confirmed that the new aircraft exceeded all of the Air Force requirements, cruising faster, climbing higher, and landing shorter by anything from twenty to forty percent. The C-130 had a maximum payload of 40,000 pounds, thanks in part to the weight control measures at Lockheed which had kept airframe weight down to 113,000 pounds, five thousand less than estimated. Shortly after the successful first flight, the Air Force increased its order to seventy-five C-130As.

Production went smoothly at the Georgia plant, despite a mishap to the first production aircraft (53-3129), which suffered a major in-flight fire in its number two engine nacelle on its second flight. The aircraft was landed without any one being injured. The left wing was replaced, and aircraft was subsequently modified to become an AC-130A with a distinguished career in South Vietnam. It is now at the Eglin Armament Center Museum.

The most significant engineering change in the early C-130 aircraft derived from the unsatisfactory operation of the Curtiss-Wright turbo-electric propeller. At one point, fifty C-130s had been completed, but could not be delivered because no decision had been made about the propeller to be used. Finally, the hydraulically operated Aeroproducts propeller was selected, and it mated perfectly with the Allison engine. Hamilton Standard propellers were also used after 1978.

The Hercules entered the Tactical Air Command (TAC) fleet on December 9, 1956, with the delivery of 55-0023 to the 463rd Troop Carrier Wing at Ardmore Base, Oklahoma. TAC crews were delighted, for the aircraft was far more nimble than the C-119s it replaced, and they especially enjoyed the unaccustomed luxury of having surplus power on takeoff.

Deliveries to TAC continued on a regular basis, and two C-130 units, the 314th and 463rd Troop Carrier Wings (TCW) formed an important part of the Composite Air Strike Force. This was a TAC innovation that anticipated that modern Air Expeditionary Force by combining complementary aircraft into a self-sufficient attack force.

Wherever the C-130 went it brought new standards of performance to carrying troops or cargo, along with vastly improved comfort and reliability. As trouble spots erupted around the world, C-130s were called on to fly troops, weapons and ammunition to the scene. One of the earliest and potentially most dangerous of these occurred when the July, 1958 revolution in Iraq caused the President of Lebanon, Camille Chamoun, to ask that American troops be provided to stabilize the region. An eleven day airlift saw more than eight million pounds of equipment moved into Lebanon. Hundreds of similar incidents followed and the ability of the C-130 to move troops and equipment directly to the scene became an essential part of American military and political planning.

The first combat loss of the C-130 occurred on September 2, 1958, when Soviet pilots flying MiG-17s shot down a United States Air Force C-130A-II signals intelligence platform over Soviet Armenia. All seventeen crew-members were killed. The action was deliberate, and the Hercules might have been enticed into a prohibited area by false radio signals. At the National Vigilance Park at Fort George C. Meade, Maryland, the Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial honors the 152 aircrew members who were lost over hostile territory. A C-130 restored to resemble the aircraft shot down over Armenia is the center piece of the Memorial.

More losses were to occur when the C-130 became the backbone of the airlift system during the Vietnam War. About fifty C-130s were lost in combat in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972, and virtually none of these were due to accidents.

The two other Air Force air-lifters, the de Havilland C-7 and the Fairchild C-123 were very useful in the Vietnam War, but neither could match the capacity or the versatility of the Hercules. The C-130s not only maintained a tightly run logistics network throughout Southeast Asia, they also fought the war at close quarters, bringing troops and equipment directly to front-line action within range of enemy guns. The C-130s radar permitted it to operate in a much wider range of weather, and this capability led logically to it being employed later as a gun ship.

Dr. Alan Gropman, now the Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy, as the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, tells the story of value of the C-130’s radar on his first mission of his second Vietnam tour. Then a captain and a flight examiner navigator, Gropman said, “During the Tet Offensive, our aircraft was diverted to Dong Ha, a small Marine base a few kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone. There a badly wounded Marine enlisted man needed to be air evacuated to a major hospital. When we were about 50 miles east of the base, we were told the field’s navigation and landing systems were destroyed and the weather was below landing minimums. We agreed to attempt an Airborne Radar Approach (wherein the navigator directs the pilot using a Ground Controlled Approach type landing employing the airborne radar) to get to the injured man. At fifty feet altitude, about one quarter of a mile from the edge of the runway, the co-pilot saw the strobe lights and we landed, picked up the young man, and took him to Saigon, where we were met by ambulance, our passenger still alive.” On his two tours in the C-130, Gropman completed a dozen such approaches using the Herky’s radar to bring vital supplies- usually fuel and ammunition-to beleaguered bases, including dropping ammunition to the 101st Airborne Division as it chased the North Vietnamese in the Au Shau valley.

The C-130’s most well-known Vietnam exploit was frustrating the efforts of North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap to do to the Americans what he had done to the French at Dien Bien Phu. Giap wanted to score a significant victory by capturing a large numbers of American prisoners. He used two regular North Vietnamese Army divisions to surround six thousand Marines defending Khe Sanh. During the seventy day siege that raged between January 20 and March 31, ninety-two percent of all supplies were brought in by C-130s. Other elements of American airpower, including close air support by B-52, helped the Marines resist, but it was the C-130s that kept them supplied and operating.

Whenever weather and enemy activity permitted, the C-130s landed at Khe Sanh out of a steep approach, off loading as swiftly as possible. The LAPES (Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System) was used when it was too dangerous to stop and off-load. When the weather was too bad for landing or LAPES, air-drops were made using ground controlled radar to guide the 130s to the drop zones. In every instance, the transports were vulnerable to the intense enemy fire.

The Hercules performed similar services elsewhere in Vietnam, most notably during the April-June, 1972 battle for An Loc. There the Hercules assumed an additional role, that of the deadly-effective AC-130 Spectre gunship.

Following in the footsteps of the AC-47 gunships, the first AC-130 Spectre began operations from Nha Trang on September 24, 1967. It was so successful that twenty-eight additional aircraft were modified over time. The effect of the Spectre’s firepower is dazzling. The 20mm gun can put one bullet in every square inch of a ground the size of a football field in a single minute. The most lethal of the original Spectres were the last eleven AC-130Es, which had the already heavy armament package enhanced with a 105mm howitzer. A total of six gunships were lost to enemy action in Vietnam.

The C-130 was also pressed into service as a bomber. Its most successful contribution was in Operation Commando Vault, where it was made hundreds of sorties in which it dropped large bombs to clear an area of the jungle for use by helicopters. The 10,000 pound M-121 bomb was dropped via parachute extraction, and was able to clear a 200-foot diameter area. The 15,000 BLU-82 increased the diameter to 260 feet, and was also used against troop and vehicle targets. During the Tet Offensive, C-130s bombed enemy troops with an improvised explosive device–25,000 pounds of contaminated kerosene tied to white phosphorous hand grenades. The Hercules can now handle the Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB), more colloquially known as the Mother of All Bombs.

The most poignant exploit of the C-130 in Vietnam may be found in sidebar two, where a brave South Vietnamese Air Force pilot made a truly Herculean takeoff with 452 people on board.

Variations on a Theme

Speed, maneuverability, ruggedness and reliability make a good portfolio of attributes for any sort of aerial weapon system, and since the Hercules possessed these in quantity, it was chosen to do many tasks. The continual improvement of the aircraft over the years, particularly the increase in performance resulting from the use of new and more powerful engines, made it attractive for a wide range of roles. There have been at least seventy variants of the Hercules, and the future will probably see even more, given that versions of the C-130 will undoubtedly serve out the rest of the twenty-first century, and perhaps part of the twenty-second as well.

Some of the variants were built in small numbers for tasks that differed only slightly from the routine, while others were built in fair numbers for highly specialized tasks that were far removed from the concept of carrying troops and cargo from Point A to Point B. In many instances, a mission given to a C-130A was sustained, enlarged, and conferred upon successor aircraft like the C-130E. In contrast, after having fulfilled the new duties of a specific mission, aircraft were often converted back to standard C-130 transport status.

Gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT) was one of the first additional missions, and ten C-130A-11-LM aircraft were modified for use by the 7407th Combat Support Wing. This tradition has been expanded on by today’s EC-130 counterparts. The now retired EC-130 ABCCC (Airborne Command and Control Center) was an effective supplement to the larger AWACS. The EC-130 Commando Solo is used in psychological warfare, carrying such powerful and directed radio and television broadcasting equipment that it literally becomes the one voice that can be seen and heard in the areas in which it is used. During Operation Iraqi Freedom the Commando Solo aircraft were so effective that 15,000 Iraqi troops obeyed a radio call for surrender after two weeks of bombing. Another role for the Hercules included the DC-130 mother aircraft which was used for many years to carry, launch and control remotely piloted vehicles such as the Ryan Firebee drone, anticipating the modern world of UAVs and UCAVs.

The Hercules offered the Marine Corps a chance to obtain a suitable tanker and the first of these, originally designated GV-1s but subsequently re-designated KC-130F, entered service in 1960. One of the most remarkable capabilities of the Hercules was the in-flight refueling of helicopters. This not only facilitated helicopters for their conventional missions, it imparted a totally new potential for helicopter tactics. The C-130 was especially value for the search and rescue role, with HC-130H aircraft acting both as command and control and as tanker. The Air Force uses the HC-130P version currently for CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue.)

Some Hercules were modified to become MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft used for special operations. They have in-flight refueling receptacles, infra-red detection equipment and some used to carry the Fulton rescue gear. The follow-on MC-130H are new-build aircraft with additional equipment. The MC-130P Combat Shadow is dedicated to long distant, clandestine, low-level missions into denied areas to provide air refueling to Special Operation Forces helicopters.

In addition to broad missions as outlined above, many Hercules were used for unique roles that sometimes required only a few aircraft. These included weather reconnaissance (WC-130E/H/J), ski equipped versions (LC-130D/F/H) for use in both Arctic and Antarctic, TACAMO (Take Charge And Move Out), which linked the National Command Authority to submarines on patrol (EC-130G), satellite recovery (NC-130H) and perhaps the most dramatic of all, the YMC-130H. Under a project called Credible Sport, this specially equipped C-130 was intended to participate in the ill fated 1980 attempt to rescue hostages held by Iran. The YMC-130H was intended to make extremely short-field landings and take-offs using booster rockets and retro-rockets. One example of the three YMC-130Hs may be seen at the Robins Air Force Base Museum.

Foreign Use

While the Iranian hostage rescue was not successful, C-130s were used by a foreign air force in one of the most sensational rescues of all time-the raid on Entebbe. (see sidebar three)

The first among the many foreign users of the C-130 was the Royal Australian Air Force, which obtained ten C-130As beginning in 1957. The RAAF has since accepted twelve C-130Es and twelve C-130Hs. The E-models have since been replaced by the advanced C-130J.

The C-130 performance is so excellent, and it is so rugged and reliable that foreign air forces have been able to meet their air cargo needs with relatively few aircraft. The United Kingdom purchased the most aircraft, sixty-six, while Saudia Arabia is second, with fifty.

It was the Israel Defense Force/Air Force, however, which exploited the versatility of the C-130 to the greatest extent. It received the first twelve in the heat of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 where it was pressed into service getting ammunition directly to front line units, supplying Ariel Sharon’s brigade after it crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt. The Israeli Hercules performed as flying six-by-six trucks , following the tanks into battle, “S” turning to maintain position and landing on any designated spot to deliver ammunition and fuel directly to the armor. The IDF/AF later acquired a further ten C-130Hs and two KC-130Hs.

The IDF/AF uses the Hercules much in the manner of the USAF, primarily for transport but with many options for special operations missions and refueling. Prior to the bombing of the Iraqi atomic site at Osirak, the route was plotted by low-altitude reconnaissance flights made by McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms. Israeli C-130s would refuel the F-4s so close to the ground that the Phantom’s engines put up obscuring clouds of dust.

The effect of the wide spread foreign use of the Hercules has been profound, and one example of its influence is the similarity in appearance of such aircraft as the Antonov An-12 and the Transall C.160. While not in any sense copies of the C-130, they acknowledged the basic logic of the Hercules’ design by adopting is high wing, upswept fuselage for rear-loading, and stub landing gear configuration.

The Future of the C-130

Early in its history, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation used a motto “It Takes a Lockheed to Beat a Lockheed.” Today, Lockheed Martin can readily say that “It Takes a C-130 to Beat a C-130” and is actively promoting the sale of the very advanced C-130J to air forces around the world.

The C-130J program currently has 179 aircraft on ordered of which 108 have been delivered. The latest version offers a considerably improved performance, thanks to the 6,000 shp Rolls-Royce-Allison AE2100D engines and the all composite six bladed Dowty Aerospace propeller system. With a maximum cruising speed of 355 knots, and enhanced systems that do not require the services of either a navigator or a flight engineer, the C-130J has established 54 world’s records in the process of validating its performance.

The Hercules has been around so long that we tend to take it for granted. To put things in perspective one has to realize how remarkable everyone would have considered it if Eddie Rickenbacker’s 1918 SPAD had fought in Vietnam in 1968, or if Bud Anderson’s 1941 Mustang had flown in the 1991 Gulf War. Yet we see the C-130 operating effectively fifty years after its first flight, and think it’s perfectly routine. The same observations will probably be made in 2104, when, almost certainly, the later models of the C-130 will still be going strong.


The aircraft must be able to:

  1. carry ninety-two infantrymen or sixty-four paratroopers on a mission with a combat radius of 1,100 nautical miles, or, alternatively, a thirty-thousand pound cargo over 960 miles.
  2. operate from short unprepared airstrips of clay, sand or humus soil.
  3. slow down to 125 knots for paradrops and even slower for assault landings.
  4. have both a rear ramp operable in flight for heavy-equipment and side doors for paratroop drops.
  5. handle bulky and heavy equipment including bulldozers, artillery pieces and trucks and
  6. fly with one engine out.


On April 29, 1975, when the fall of Saigon was imminent. Tan Son Nhut Air Base was taking heavy fire, and its ramps and taxiways were littered with the burning carcasses of what had been the South Vietnamese Air Force. A VNAF officer, Tim Nguyen, saw a single Lockheed C-130A taxing out with people still streaming to climb on board the cargo ramp. He joined them, forcing his way on board.

At the end of the runway, the cargo door finally closed. The pilot, Major Phuong, pushed the power forward and the overweight Hercules slowly ran down the 9,000 foot runway, finally staggering off the ground at the end of the 1,000 foot overrun. The C-130 stayed in ground effect until it gained enough speed to begin a shallow climb.

The airplane was at least 20,200 pounds overweight, as it carried no fewer than 452 people, including thirty-three crowded into the flight deck. After a meandering flight of three and one-half hours, Phuong landed at U Tapao Royal Thai Air Base. When Nguyen got out, he looked at the C-130 and vowed that he would someday work for the company that built the airplane that saved his life. Today he does just that, at Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia, where he is a specialist in defensive systems. The aircraft that carried him and 451 others to safety may now be found as the gate guardian at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas.


On June 27, 1976, four terrorists forced an Air France Airbus 300 to divert from its scheduled Athens to Paris route and land at Entebbe, Uganda, the home of dictator Idi Amin. Joined there by more terrorists, the hijackers demanded that Israel free fifty-three convicted terrorists in exchange for the 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages that they held. They released the French air crew and non-Jewish passengers.

Israel had always refused to negotiate with terrorists, but agreed to enter negotiations to gain time to prepare a military counter-stroke. That counterstroke involved flying for seven hours in three C-130s, landing on a potentially hostile airport, drive to the air line terminal and kill all the terrorists while protecting the hostages.

The lead C-130 carried two jeeps and an exact copy of Amin’s black Mercedes. The other two C-130s carried the rest of the 200 crack troops assigned to rescue the hostages and destroy the MiGs parked on the airport so that they could not pursue and attack the C-130s on their homeward flight.

The C-130s landed at Entebbe at 23:01, local time, freeing the hostages in a swift attack that killed eight kidnappers. The force commander, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed by friendly fire, as were two hostages. Fifty-eight minutes after landing, the C-130s took off for a successful flight home.


Willis Hawkins wrote me that “We had a small group of four to six engineers to conceive new airplanes, and I was its head.