The idea for the Four Horsemen, the world’s only four-engine-per-aircraft flight demonstration team, sprang from some pilots looking to fill time.
The C-130A Hercules first entered US Air Force operational service at Ardmore AFB, Oklahoma, in December 1956. “In early 1957, four of us were at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a week to drop Army paratroopers,” recalls Jim Akin, one of the Horsemen. “One of the scheduled drops was cancelled because of high winds. So, we said, ‘Let’s go fly formation.’ We needed to log formation time and flight hours.”
The four pilots—Akin, Gil Sanders, Jim Fairbanks, and Gene Chaney—were all Air Force captains, aircraft commanders, and qualified instructor pilots. Assigned to the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron, the first operational C-130A unit, each of them had logged roughly fifty flight hours in the brand-new Hercules.
They started in loose formation in the airspace over Kentucky and Tennessee but gradually brought their aircraft closer and closer together. “We discovered we really liked flying formation,” recalls Akin. The foursome made a couple of low passes in close formation over Fort Campbell before landing.
A second cancelled paratroop drop later that week led to a second formation flight. The idea for a C-130 demonstration team had been planted. It would take more than a year to come to fruition.
The Horsemen Mount Up
Returning home to Ardmore, Chaney and Akin, along with several other pilots, would practice formation maneuvers on training missions or when they were deployed.
“A group of us liked to fly formation, and we would go out and try maneuvers to see if they worked and we could do them safely,” notes Bill Hatfield, one of the copilots on the first flight, and who would eventually become the team’s regular slot pilot.
At that time, Tactical Air Command, the forerunner of today’s Air Combat Command, operated the Air Force’s fighters—and the C-130 fleet. In early 1958, the nascent team seized an opportunity for its first demonstration. The parent unit of the 774th TCS, the 463rd Troop Carrier Wing, was tasked to put up all thirty-six of its assigned C-130s for a mass flyby at a ceremony at Ardmore. Most of TAC leadership would be in attendance.
“We asked our wing commander if we could do something special at the end of the flyby,” Akin recalls. “As we flew past, the four of us broke out, came back in a diamond formation, scorched over the field at about 300 knots at low altitude, and closed with a bomb-burst maneuver,” said Akin. “The crowd was expecting the Hercules to come lumbering by. But we wanted to show them what the aircraft could really do.”
For that show, the team called themselves the Thunderweasels, combining the name of TAC’s premier fighter demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, with the nickname of the 774th TCS, the Green Weasels. Although the Thunderweasels name raised more than a few official eyebrows, the demonstration had been a huge hit.
A Full Show
Sparked by their performance at Ardmore, enthusiasm began to build. Eventually, the pilots began seriously working up what evolved into a twenty-three minute show—and coming up with a new name. “We thought long and hard about it and finally settled on the Four Horsemen after the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There were four of us,” notes Akin. “The name fit.”
By late 1958, the team was ready for its first official show, which came at Sewart AFB, Tennessee, the team’s new home. Ardmore AFB was closing, and the 774th had been reassigned to the base near Nashville.
The permanent Horsemen—Akin, Hatfield, Chaney, and Capt. David Moore—flew with a rotating cast of squadron copilots who were all aircraft commanders and instructor or standardization/evaluation pilots. For demos, the pilots also flew with a flight engineer and a scanner, normally an aircraft mechanic. “The enlisted crew members would just about get into fist fights trying to fly with us,” remembers copilot Bill Mills. “Their pride in what we were doing was top to bottom.”
To start the demonstration, the pilots, wearing scarves and a distinctive shoulder patch featuring the silhouette of a horse head with the Roman numeral IV in its neck, taxied out and lined up on the runway in a diamond formation.
Normally, Moore, whom Mills described as “a very smooth pilot,” flew lead. Akin flew right wing, which the Horsemen called the number two position. Hatfield flew the slot, or number four position. Chaney, the team leader who had been the ferry pilot when the first operational C-130 was delivered from the then-Lockheed Georgia Company facility in Marietta, Georgia, flew the left wing, or number three position. “The left wing was the hardest position to fly,” said Hatfield. “The pilot had to look across the flight deck and out the right window the whole show to stay in position.”
The Four Horsemen would take off nearly simultaneously in about 1,500 feet. The slot aircraft, which was getting extra lift from the leader’s propwash, actually got airborne first, followed by the other three aircraft. Quickly retracting the landing gear, the four pilots would be in tight formation at 1,500 feet altitude over the end of the runway, climbing at 4,000 feet per minute.
Next, the team made a left banking turn, repositioned, and flew in a close line astern, slightly stacked trail formation down the show line. That arrow formation was followed by the arrowhead formation, where lead and number two remained in trail formation, while the number three aircraft moved to the left wing of number two, and the slot moved off two’s right wing. After repositioning, the group made a flyby in the diamond formation. The four pilots then transitioned to an echelon right formation to turn.
Coming back toward the crowd at approximately 200 feet above the runway in the diamond, the team performed the bomb burst—what they called the Horsemen Burst—with the lead pilot pulling up and making a forty-five degree left climbing turn, while the right wing pulled up and made a ninety-degree right climbing turn. Left wing pulled up and turned ninety degrees to the left, while the slot climbed and made a forty-five degree turn to the right. After completing their turns, the pilots leveled off and returned to the original heading.
The team rejoined in the diamond, and then went to an extended trail formation. With sufficient spacing between the C-130s, the four pilots simultaneously broke to the left for landing. The Horsemen then touched down on alternate sides of the runway.
The Famous Horsemen
Crowds everywhere were astonished. “The C-130A had a wingspan of 132 feet and weighed more than 100,000 pounds. But it could move,” notes John Dale, a Horsemen copilot. “It was very responsive, even flying past thirty degrees of bank. We were able to do the maneuvers because of that aircraft. It was the closest thing to a fighter I ever flew.”
But the wow factor was something the team had to work at. “We had to schedule two- to four-hour flights a couple of times a month to train for the maneuvers,” notes Akin. “We were working in Four Horsemen practice between operational missions and deployments. Anytime the four of us were somewhere, though, we flew a show. We didn’t have dedicated aircraft, so we flew whatever C-130 was available. We performed from Bangor to Bangkok.”
Hatfield adds, “We didn’t fly standard formations, so we had to practice. Our show required a lot of concentration.” The two wingmen flew with barely ten feet of horizontal separation between their wingtips and the horizontal tail of the lead and at the same altitude. Hatfield, in the slot position, flew seven to ten feet behind and slightly above the lead. “I had to fly on the lead and react to him. We weren’t that far apart. But we never had a close call, and we never even scratched an aircraft.”
As the team’s notoriety spread, airshow requests started coming in, including a surprisingly large number of requests from Strategic Air Command bomber bases. At that time, a fairly intense rivalry existed between the Air Force major commands that flew bombers and fighters. Many SAC base commanders simply preferred to see four-engine “heavies” flying a demonstration versus single-engine fighters. The C-130 did make for a different kind of airshow. At one demo, lead had to shut down an engine. The Horsemen continued on as if nothing had happened.
By late 1959, sales of the C-130, both in the US and internationally, were starting to pick up. Lockheed capitalized on the popularity of the Four Horsemen by producing promotional items as sales tools. Today, a Lockheed postcard showing the Horsemen in formation occasionally turns up on online auction sites and usually sells for about $30.
Lockheed also made a documentary called Hercules And The Four Horsemen. Thousands of feet of footage were shot of the team flying their demonstration over the Grand Canyon and near Williams AFB outside Phoenix, Arizona. The result was a movie the Horsemen really disliked.
The movie producers used actors, including one with a harsh nasal voice, to spout ridiculous dialog, rather than use the crisp, precise radio calls the Horsemen actually made. That was irritating, but what was particularly galling to the team was that most of the footage was shot at an altitude of 10,000 feet so the aircraft would appear against the clouds.
“We flew at 500 to 1,000 feet during our shows,” notes Akin. “We never flew for shows as high as we did for that movie.” Despite its faults, the fifteen-minute film is the only official visual record of the Four Horsemen in action. The film can be found here.
Into The Sunset
The pinnacle of Horsemen history came when the team appeared on the 18 January 1960 cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, regarded as the world’s leading aviation publication. Ironically, shortly after that, the team was disbanded.
A number of factors led to the demise of the Horsemen. Some issues were political: For instance, when Chaney was asked if he would like to fly a dedicated C-130 as a support aircraft for the Thunderbirds, he said no. Separately, Congress, following Senator William Proxmire’s lead, refused to allocate money for additional flying hours to practice because the team was seen as frivolous. Other factors were operational: The Horsemen were all overdue to rotate to other assignments. “The C-130 was heavily tasked for operations at that point,” recalls Akin. “Even though preliminary plans had been made for the team to have five permanently assigned C-130s, the aircraft was just too valuable to dedicate to a demonstration team. Those plans were quickly killed.”
The main reason for the end of the Horsemen, though, was the advent of the C-130B. By spring 1960, the Hercules squadrons at Sewart were rapidly converting to the B-model.
“The B-model Hercules had a number of features that made it better for long missions,” notes Hatfield. “It had different engines and propellers, and much lower hydraulic pressure on the controls. It was not as responsive as the C-130A and just not as good for formation flying. We tried to use the B-model for the Four Horsemen, but it simply didn’t fly like the A-model”
Once the Four Horsemen rode no more, the aircrew members went their separate ways. Chaney and Moore have both passed away. Akin, who flew B-24s and P-38s during World War II before reentering the Air Force, retired after a twenty-eight year service career. Hatfield, who first served as an enlisted cryptographer, spent most of his twenty-eight year career in C-130s. He was also part of the initial cadre of Air Force pilots to fly the C-141 StarLifter.
Among the Horsemen copilots, Mills, who had been an enlisted radio operator in the Berlin Airlift, went on to serve as the commander of the first C-130 squadron equipped with the All-Weather Aerial Delivery System during his thirty-six year Air Force career. John Dale was in charge of DC-130 drone director operations during Operation Linebacker in Vietnam. He also commanded a U-2 squadron and was later director of reconnaissance at 15th Air Force headquarters during his thirty-two year career.
From the first practice to the last show, the Four Horsemen flew fifteen official airshows and additional demos when the four pilots were deployed. But the effect the team had was lasting. “What we did was prove to the rest of the Air Force, and, more importantly, to the Army, what the C-130 was capable of doing. That was shown during the Vietnam War,” notes Akin. “And the C-130 is still showing that capability today.”