In the early 1950s, the aviation industry was gaga over jets. The U.S. Air Force was no different, looking for high-speed, high-performance jet aircraft that could go toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union. But there was also the need for a transport aircraft that could fly over long distances, carry bulky equipment, including artillery and tanks, drop paratroops, land, and take off from shorter, more austere airfields. And the C-130 Hercules would be the perfect fit.

 

The Ugly Duckling

Lockheed Martin’s design team created a four-engine turboprop that was stubby and not at all as attractive as those sleek fighter jets. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson, who designed over 40 aircraft including the U2 and SR-71, was aghast at the prototype cargo aircraft. 

“If you send that in,” Johnson told his boss, Hall Hibbard, referring to the first proposed design for the C-130, “you’ll destroy the Lockheed Company.” That was in 1951.

Luckily for Lockheed, Hibbard submitted their design, and on August 23, 1954, YC-130 (as the prototype was called), flew for the first time. This began 67 years of dedicated service with the C-130 Hercules still being in production today. 

To give some perspective on how long the Hercules has been in service and production, in 1954 The Tonight Show, featuring Steve Allen, began and Elvis Presley was cutting a demo at Sun Records.

 

C-130, the Aircraft With the 40 Variants

C-130 airdrop
C-130 airdropping a pallet of heavy equipment. (Lockheed Martin)

The C-130 was originally designed as a troop, medevac, and cargo transport aircraft. Yet, aircraft has among the versatile airframes ever designed. As a result, it has become the most modified aircraft in the U.S. Air Force with over 40 variants and hundreds of configurations, according to the Air Mobility Command Historian Office

The C-130 is used for airlift, aeromedical missions, personnel and cargo airdrop, natural disaster relief missions, weather reconnaissance, aerial spray missions, and firefighting duties for the U.S. Forest Service. It is even used for Antarctic resupplying missions and as a gunship.

The C-130 can airlift 92 ground troops, 64 fully-equipped paratroopers, 74 litter patients, or 45,000 pounds of cargo.

The first C-130 models, aptly called C-130A, entered service in 1956. They were powered by Allison T56-A-9 turboprops with three-blade propellers. Yet, the initial lack of range necessitated adding additional fuel tanks.

Therefore, the C-130B incorporated a larger fuel capacity, switched to a four-bladed propeller, and included an electronic reconnaissance variant.

The extended-range C-130E model entered service in 1962 and was utilized as an interim long-range transport for the Military Air Transport Command. It featured the installation of 1,360-gallon external fuel tanks under each wing’s midsection and more powerful Allison T56-A-7A turboprops. An aerial-refueling-tanker version, the KC-130 was first developed in 1958.

 

Special Operations C-130 Variants

EC-130 Commando Solo Aircraft
The EC-130 Commando Solo variant of the C-130. (USAF)

Vietnam War saw widespread use of the versatile C-130, as it was perfectly equipped to carry out low-altitude parachute extraction drops of cargo. This was highlighted during the defense of Khe Sanh in 1968 where C-130s accounted for the delivery of 90 percent of the supplies used by Marines defending the base against the North Vietnamese siege.

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The war also highlighted the need for aircraft to support Special Operations units. In response, the MC-130E Combat Talon was developed for the Air Force to support special operations missions in Southeast Asia. This later led to both the MC-130H Combat Talon II and several other special missions variants. 

Among them, the EC-130 Commando Solo is a psychological operations/information operations (PSYOP/IO) platform equipped with an aerial radio station and television stations able to transmit messaging over commercial frequencies. 

The C-130 also comes in the HC-130 long-range search and rescue variant used by the USAF and the U.S. Coast Guard. Equipped for the deep deployment of Pararescuemen (PJs), survival equipment, and aerial refueling of combat rescue helicopters, HC-130s are usually the on-scene command aircraft for combat Air Force SAR missions and non-combat SAR that is conducted by both the Air Force and Coast Guardsmen.

An example of an early HC-130 was shown in the John Wayne film The Green Berets where a deployed Special Forces A-Team extracted a high-value North Vietnamese target to an overflying HC-130. The plane was equipped with the Fulton surface-to-air recovery/extraction system, which was designed to pull a person off the ground using a wire strung from a helium balloon. The Fulton system was later discontinued when aerial refueling of long-range helicopters proved safer and more versatile.

Most of the early models currently operating with the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) are scheduled to be replaced by new-production MC-130J versions.

 

The Famous AC-130 Gunship

AC-130
The business end of an AC-130 gunship. (U.S. Air Force)

However, out of all the C-130 variants, the AC-130 gunship is probably the most famous.

The gunship goes back to Vietnam. The initial gunships replaced the venerable AC-47 “Spooky” gunships that were used early in the war. 

The AC-130s used a combination of the latest 20 mm rotary autocannons and 40 mm Bofors cannon, but had no 7.62 mm close-support armament. The Air Force nicknamed the new gunships “Spectre.”

In February of 1972, the first 105mm was installed and used and has now become a mainstay of the fleet.

After Vietnam, the AC-130 continued to see wide use. The plane provided valuable close-air support during the invasions of Grenada and Panama, flew covert missions in support of U.S. and Salvadoran troops during the civil war in El Salvador, and supported Coalition troops in the Gulf War. 

In the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the AC-130 has flown countless missions in support of the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the initial invasion of Afghanistan, just a handful of special operations troops with AC-130 gunships and fast-moving attack aircraft captured the city of Konduz trouncing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

The fifth and latest model, the AC-130J, is a highly modified C-130J aircraft that contains many advanced features. 

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