About the C-130J Hercules

ROLE

The Hercules is the RAF’s primary tactical transport aircraft and in its current C.Mk 4 and C.Mk 5 versions of the C-130J-30 and C-130J, respectively, has been the backbone of UK operational tactical mobility tasks since it was brought into service in 1999.  It is frequently employed to operate into countries or regions where there is a threat to aircraft; its performance, tactics and defensive systems make it the ideal platform for such tasks.

CAPABILITY

The aircraft is highly flexible, with the ability to airdrop a variety of stores and paratroopers, and operate from natural surface landing zones.  To conduct these missions it is vital that Hercules crews are highly skilled in low-level flying.  The aircraft performs in the same roles at night using night-vision goggles (NVGs), while station keeping equipment (SKE) enables it to remain in formation during poor weather.  Long-range capabilities are enhanced with air-to-air refuelling, while the Air Survival Rescue Apparatus may be mounted in the cabin for search and rescue missions, enabling the Hercules to airdrop life rafts and emergency supplies.

A Hercules lands in Nepal to provide aid following an earthquake in 2015.
Earthquake aid in Nepal, 2015.
Image by: Sgt Neil Bryden

TYPE HISTORY

On February 2, 1951, the USAF issued a General Operational Requirement for an aircraft to replace its large fleets of Curtiss C-46, and Fairchild C-82 and C-119 piston-engined transports.  Lockheed responded with its L-206 design, which the USAF chose as the winning contender on July 2, 1951, ordering two YC-130A prototypes based on the proposal.

The first production C-130A Hercules entered service in December 1956 and Lockheed went on to create a bewildering array of variants and subvariants for the US and foreign militaries, and civilian market. After the Armstrong Whitworth AW681 vertical take-off transport had been abandoned on the drawing board, the RAF found itself needing to replace its piston-engined Blackburn Beverley and Handley Page Hastings transports, while augmenting the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy turboprop.  Sixty-six Hercules were therefore ordered, essentially to C-130H standard, but designated C-130K for export to the UK.

Known to the RAF as Hercules C.Mk 1 (the C-130K designation only came into regular use as a differentiator after the C-130J entered service), the first aircraft completed its maiden flight on October 19, 1966.  The type entered service in 1967, but defence cuts in 1975 saw 13 Hercules aircraft withdrawn and two squadrons disbanded.

Even in this reduced state, the Hercules fleet was crucial to UK operations, a fact emphasised by the 1982 Falklands War.  It very quickly became apparent that the Hercules would be required to mount non-stop return sorties to the Falklands from Ascension Island and a crash programme of inflight-refuelling probe installation began.  Modified aircraft were designated C.Mk 1P; the first refuelling contact occurred on May 3, 1982, with a Handley Page Victor tanker, and the first combat mission on the 16th.

With the VC10 tanker conversion programme yet to gather pace and the heavy Victor commitment in the South Atlantic, the versatile Hercules was also selected for conversion as a tanker, six aircraft receiving hose drum units (HDUs) and refuelling probes.  The first completed its maiden and delivery flights on July 5, 1982.  In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, the C.Mk 1K took a vital role supporting RAF BAe Harriers and, subsequently, McDonnell Douglas Phantoms providing Falkland Islands air defence.

Meanwhile, in 1978 a conversion programme had begun to produce 30 Hercules C.Mk 3 aircraft by stretching the fuselage of the C1 to achieve a dramatic increase in cabin capacity.  Lockheed produced the initial C3, flying it for the first time on December 3, 1979, but Marshall produced the remainder.  Indeed, the Cambridge-based company has been instrumental in the Hercules programme since its inception, the first RAF Hercules having been delivered direct to Marshall, which subsequently performed all the major fleet conversion work and continues to support the C-130J.  Later, 29 C3s received inflight-refuelling probes to become C.Mk 3P aircraft.

A December 1993 MoD requirement identified the need for a Hercules replacement and although the European FLA was considered, the only substitute for a Hercules turned out to be a Hercules, in the shape of the more powerful Lockheed C-130J, a next-generation machine then under development and featuring the latest avionics systems.

The December 1994 order comprised ten standard C-130J aircraft and 15 of the longer C-130J-30, with first delivery (of a J-30) in August 1998. The initial operational example reached RAF Lyneham, then the RAF’s Hercules base, on November 21, 1999.

Designated Hercules C.Mk 4 in service, the C-130J-30 is just a little shorter than the C3, while the Hercules C.Mk 5 has the same fuselage length as the C1.  Inflight-refuelling probes are installed as standard, while the type’s improved range enables most sorties to be flown without the characteristic underwing fuel tanks of the legacy versions.

Having worked intensively during Operations Telic and Herrick alongside the legacy Hercules fleet, the C-130J has accumulated flying hours rather more rapidly than had been projected.  It was identified in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review for withdrawal from service in 2022, a decade earlier than originally planned, while the C-130K was retired on October 28, 2013 after almost five decades on the frontline.

By now the A400M programme was well advanced.  The Atlas was always earmarked to replace the Hercules and although its tactical capability is likely to have expanded dramatically by 2022, the C-130J clearly had an important tactical role to play until the A400M was fully established.  The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review reflected this thinking, with the announcement that 14 Hercules C4s will remain in service until 2030, with funding allocated not only for their operations, but also for upgrading and life extension.

Header image by Paul Crouch

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Specifications

Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules:

  • Aircrew: 2 Pilots, 1 WSOp (CMN), 1 ground Engineer
  • Powerplant: four 4,700shp RollsRoyce AE2100D3 turboprops
  • Length, C.Mk 4: 112ft 9in (34.34m)
  • Length, C.Mk 5: 97ft 9in (29.77m)
  • Height: 38ft 4¾in (11.70m)
  • Wingspan: 132ft 7in (40.38m)
  • Wing area: 1,745sqft (162.12m)
  • Cruising speed: 320kt (593km/h)
  • Ferry range, C.Mk 4: 2,650nm (4,908km)
  • Ferry range, C.Mk 5: 2,850nm (5,078km)
  • Maximum altitude: 40,000ft
  • Cruising altitude: 28,000ft