Most people, if they know what a C-130 is, simply look and see a C-130 in the air. Others see an annoying military plane that buzzes treetops and looks like a bumblebee lumbering through the sky. Did you know that Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has its own variety called MC-130? The Combat Shadows and Talon IIs of AFSOC pave the way for special operations around the world.



The C-130 Hercules is the absolute workhorse of the U.S. Air Force. The basic C-130, released into the wild in 1956, has been improved on and modified extensively throughout the years. The C-130J Super Hercules has hit the mainstream and is now parked on nearly every active C-130 ramp in the Air Force. The venerable Hercules is owned and operated by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Navy, and the Air National Guard. It fills roles unique to each organization.


Special Mission Hercs

Air Force Special Operations Command operates the MC-130 variants of the Herc. The “M” denotes special mission. During the Vietnam War, USAF officials determined a need for an aircraft that could perform low-level clandestine penetration operations. The C-130E was ultimately chosen for the honor, and four aircraft were assigned to become test-beds for unconventional warfare.

MC-130 Combat Talon II
Combat Talon II taxies at RAF Machrihanish, Scotland. (Courtesy of author)

These C-130Es were the precursor of the special operation variants we know and love/hate today. Project Thin Slice was a USAF program to modify existing aircraft to act in special operation roles. The original aircraft, the C-123B Provider, was not up to the tasks demanded by Military Airlift Command Vietnam-Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG), and the C-130E slipped into the role.

The aircraft were modified by Lockheed Air Services. The engineers tried every modification they thought would work on the aircraft. Some C-130s were outfitted with the Fulton Surface-To-Air Recovery Systems (STARS). STARS aircraft had a large scissor-like yoke mounted on their nose. Operators on the ground would inflate large helium balloons to raise a lift cable, and the C-130 would fly in and snag the cable, pulling personnel and/or cargo from the ground. Due to the nature of the system, very little unclassified information about its operational use exists, but it was used from the mid-60s to 1982.