Fifty Years Of Hercules Down Under

By Jeff Rhodes Posted 9 January 2009

A new era in Australian airlift began on 13 December 1958 when Wing Commander Ian Olorenshaw, a former fighter pilot, and his crew touched down at RAAF Richmond west of Sydney, completing the delivery flight of the first C-130A Hercules for the Royal Australian Air Force. Just two years after the US Air Force accepted its first Hercules, Australia became the first international C-130 operator. Over the course of the next fifty years, the RAAF became the only international operator to fly four generations of C-130s. Crews from 36 Squadron operated the original twelve C-130As. In 1966, 36 Squadron was joined at RAAF Richmond, the RAAF’s second oldest base, by 37 Squadron, a World War II-era unit that was reformed to fly twelve C-130Es purchased to expand the RAAF fleet.

In 1978, 36 Squadron replaced its A-models with a dozen C-130Hs, which arrived in a camouflage paint scheme to emphasize its tactical airlift focus. In 1999, 37 Squadron retired its E-models and started flying the first of a dozen light gray, longer fuselage C-130Js. In 2006, 36 Squadron moved north to RAAF Amberley, near Brisbane, to operate the RAAF’s new C-17s.

Today, 37 Squadron, still at RAAF Richmond, is the only squadron in the world that operates both the C-130H and the C-130J. Partly for operational reasons and partly to enhance squadron cohesion and unity, all twenty-four squadron aircraft are being repainted in a new, standard low-visibility scheme. These are the same aircraft that were originally delivered, as the RAAF has not had a major accident in five decades of flying the Hercules.

What follows is not the complete history of the Hercules Down Under, but observations and thoughts of just a few of the many people associated with the C-130 in Australia today.

Air Commodore Ian Scott is the commander of Air Lift Group, the RAAF’s umbrella organization that oversees the Air Mobility Control Centre; 84 Wing at RAAF Richmond, which conducts VIP airlift, tanking, training, and Air Movements Training and Development Unit; and 86 Wing, which conducts tactical (C-130H/J and C-7 Caribou) and strategic (C-17) airlift operations. He is a former navigator with more than 6,300 flight hours in the Hercules.

We love the Hercules and we’re going to keep them. There is something about the Hercules — it is so flexible and such a versatile aircraft. Nothing in the world can replace it. Although some newer aircraft are better in some aspects, nothing performs like the Hercules. It is hard to imagine our Air Force without C-130s.

Of course, the aircraft has changed. The Hercules has gone from a platform with a large crew conducting benign operations to being an aircraft with highly technical capabilities. In the process, it has become the world’s most prodigious airlifter. The C-130 has gone from mandraulics, if you will, to having highly automated systems. The aircraft has changed, but its role hasn’t. The C-130 still delivers goods and people on time, where required, regardless of conditions.

Pilots used to need top-notch stick-and-rudder skills. The flight management system in the J-model does that now automatically. The aircraft tells you what time it is and where you are. The navigator in the H-model used to gather information and make decisions. Now, the nav focuses more on strategy and tactics.

The environment in which the aircraft operates has also changed. What used to be a relatively benign environment for aircraft operations now requires higher performance, tactics, and countermeasures to defeat threats. An airlift crew can’t go anywhere without self-protection. In the old days, the C-130 announced help was arriving, so it was not considered a target. Our enemies don’t treat it with the same respect today. A Hercules is just another target to them.

Despite the RAAF’s focus on the combat role of the Hercules, the vast majority of our work has been humanitarian. We flew medevac missions out of Vietnam, flood relief in Australia, disaster relief in Iran and Pakistan, and famine relief and refugee support in many places around the world. A C-130E was the first aircraft into Darwin the night Cyclone Tracy hit in 1974. The crews worked like Trojans pulling people out of there. We flew well in excess of the aircraft’s rated capacity. One crew had to perform a three-engine takeoff because the base commander said no spare parts were available to fix the engine.

We have also had some unusual and sometimes critical flights. We flew a gift bull to the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. We flew a valuable Jackson Pollock abstract painting called “The Blue Poles.” We pulled the Australian embassy staff out of Saigon two days before it fell in 1975. We also evacuated 120 orphans from Tan Son Nhut AB in South Vietnam. That was a very moving flight.

Group Captain Tim Innes is the commanding officer of 84 Wing and the director of the Air Mobility Control Centre, or AMCC, at RAAF Richmond. He has about 2,500 hours as a pilot in C-130s.

All C-130 aircrew training is conducted by 84 Wing and 285 Squadron. We don’t have a direct operational role. Whether pilots need basic flight school instruction or conversion instruction, we train them for tactical operations, dirt strip operations, assault landings, airdrop missions, and tactics. We conduct night vision goggle training in the C-130J.

The Air Mobility Control Centre starts the operational tasking for all airlift missions, including the C-130. The planners at the centre set the parameters and say, “Here’s your task, now go.” They have to understand the aircraft and what it can do. For AMCC, the J-model is easier to task because it doesn’t have a navigator or flight engineer. Without them, an H-model crew can’t operate. From a tasking perspective, an H-model flight has a much more detailed brief. With the J, the pilot knows he’ll get to the vicinity of the airfield.

The C-130J carries more people and has more space. We task it for some special missions. From the flyer’s point of view, the J is magnificent in the terminal portion of the flight. If it is dusk or dusty, the HUD is invaluable. All the things we teach pilots about the basics of flying are all shown on the HUD. In the C-130J, the pilot can look through the HUD and concentrate on tactical operations.

Combining the squadrons was a big cultural adjustment for the 37 Squadron crews. The H-model crews had to overcome seeing the J-model as a threat. The J has premier airdrop capability and can drop in weather. The aircraft has a lot of latent capability we haven’t fully developed. The J is an amazing piece of technology. The flight deck is larger than that of a 747 — we have carried celebrities up there.

The C-130 has done just about everything from conducting relief missions to operating as an airline. The government brought us in to provide some commercial air transport during a pilot strike. We’ve flown flood relief missions. We’ve dumped hay to feed stranded cattle.

We are always the first on call. In two-to-six hours after we get the word, the crews will be off. At any time, we can put up twelve aircraft. We regularly break that mark.

Wing Commander Mark McCallum is the executive officer of 84 Wing at RAAF Richmond. A Hercules pilot with 5,600 C-130 hours, he trained the initial cadre of RAAF C-130J crews.

The C-130 has taken over the role of the C-47 Dakota as the classic airlifter worldwide. When the Australia Defense Force is engaging internationally, the C-130 is always there. It covers a wide range of operations. The Hercules takes over from the much smaller Caribou and goes up to strategic operations.

I was part of the introduction of the C-130J to the RAAF and involved in the writing of the standard operating instructions. Having just the two pilots and the loadmaster in the C-130J changed the crew dynamic. Before, the pilot dealt with the navigator or the loadmaster. The copilot mostly worked the radio. Now the copilot is an integral part of the operation and has a lot of responsibility in the crew’s decision-making process.

The C-130J started as an E-model replacement. But we quickly realized the capability of this brand new slick toy. The initial crew cadre transferred to 285 Squadron while 37 Squadron focused on introducing the aircraft into operation. The H-model will be in service until 2013. We will retain a core of H experience until then. We need to continue to build C-130J experience. The J-model requires fewer crew positions. We have a lot of aircrew transitioning from the H to the J. Currently not very many crew members go from J to H.

Our operational bread and butter these days is the Middle East. The C-130H and C-130J have similar performance envelopes, and tactics are similar for both models. But at 300 knots and 300 feet, the C-130J is stable and smooth. Everybody in the J cockpit looks at the same information. On a properly planned mission, the airspace information is present on the HUD or cockpit displays. The cockpit patter is all operational. In theater, we fly with two pilots and two loadmasters to watch out for threats on each side of the aircraft.

Getting there is half the fun on the C-130. Nothing is better than traveling around the world with a C-130 crew.

Group Captain Gary Martin, commander of 86 Wing at RAAF Richmond, is in charge of RAAF combat airlift operations, which includes the C-130. He has recorded 3,100 flight hours as a Hercules pilot.

We provide responsive global airlift using an interconnected hub-and-node system, similar to that used by the airlines. We remove a pallet from a C-17 or a KC-30A tanker, load it on the C-130. That same pallet gets put on a Chinook helicopter and it gets to the front lines. Under this system, we position the Herks at the nodes, so that the aircraft can work at its most efficient rate. We used to have to use the C-130 on intermediate-length missions. The C-130 can take a pallet a long way, but we trade range for payload. It makes more sense for a Hercules to be full and make shorter trips. After the tsunami hit Sumatra in 2004, we flew the C-130 at a high rate from Butterworth in Malaysia into the affected area. We had about ninety percent load rates. We were flying into short fields, fighting bad weather, and landing in damaged areas. That’s what the C-130s are all about.

The Army is starting to believe in this system and is integrating the Chinook and Black Hawk. The Army is not just a customer. It is our partner as well. Whatever the piece of equipment is, it is packaged at the point of departure and unpacked at the point of need. The pallet is lashed today and delivered tomorrow. We have never been able to do that before this system was put in place.

Managing a mixed fleet of Hercules aircraft is a challenge. The H-model requires more maintenance and its inspections take more time. Technicians trained on the E-model had to be retrained for the J-model. As we went through this technical swapout, we put the focus back into training. As a result, our techs today are far more educated in how a part or a piece of equipment on the C-130 is connected to every other part or piece of equipment on the Hercules. In areas such as aircraft battle damage repair, training had to change from repairing control rods to repairing data busses. But the Army doesn’t care who’s doing the job or how he got qualified. The customer needs the aircraft to open in the dead of night, deliver what he needs, and then go away.

Having the C-130J on a mission is seen as less of a technical and operational risk. The government is more inclined to commit aircraft when their confidence is high the aircraft won’t be lost. Our government also likes that integrating the C-130J with other nations is easier. One of our C-130Js happened to be at the Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia, for a software update on 11 September 2001. Three days later, our crewmembers were tasked to take a team of doctors from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to New York City. That C-130J was the only aircraft flying in the United States that morning. Our government would have never approved that flight without confidence in the Hercules.

Flight Lieutenant Glen Bruhn is a pilot in 37 Squadron with approximately 2,800 flight hours in the Hercules — about 1,500 hours in the C-130E, 800 hours in the C-130H, and 500-plus hours in the C-130J.

The C-130E had a good autopilot. The C-130H started getting electronic instrumentation. The C-130J has more automation. The C-130E and C-130H have more crew. On the C-130H, everybody has to check in on the intercom when checklists are read. The checklists in the C-130J are more efficient. The C-130J also has much better situational awareness for pilots. We are amazed at how much more aware we can be. And the increase in power in the C-130J is also a good thing. The C-130H is a more mechanical aircraft that requires equipment to be fixed. The fix on the C-130J sometimes involves pressing control, alt, delete.

The difference in flying a J-model is that we have to flare a little bit earlier on landing because of the longer fuselage. When we do our dirt work, the C-130J requires a five- or seven-point turn versus a three-point turn in the H-model. Turning the longer J-model reminds me of the movie Austin Powers when Powers tries to turn the cart in the hallway.

We have four-month deployments to the Middle East because that time period is bearable for the families. At the same time, we can get the most out of people in the cockpit.

Our requirements to keep current are not necessarily being mission qualified. We are required to stay current in emergency procedures every six months. Keeping current also involves a tactical component. Missions in the Middle East are all airland. Landing in Afghanistan in winter is difficult, so we airdrop loads. To enable better, more accurate air drops, we are getting what the United States calls the Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS. Since we are not joint with anybody — the RAAF does all of Australia’s airdrops — we just call it PADS here.

I have been to some interesting places in the C-130 and done some interesting things. I’ve been to Midway Island and I’m going to a Cope Thunder exercise. I flew on the last E-model to carry two armored personnel carriers weighing 21,000 pounds each. That much weight was almost bending the aircraft. I have flown flood relief missions in Western Australia and have been on strips that had a 500-foot dropoff at one end. I once flew a load of toilet paper into East Timor. I’ve made some shocker landings and survived. Crews can do a lot of things in the Herky Bird.

Warrant Officer Rudy Mech is a 37 Squadron loadmaster with more than 12,000 flight hours on the C-130E, C-130H, and C-130J.

Crews on the C-130J are probably closer since they have more responsibilities and the crew is smaller. But the loadmasters here are dual qualified on both the C-130H and the C-130J. The tasking is nonstop. We are always busy.

I have loaded emus in boxes. I once loaded a periscope for an Oberon-class submarine. Because of its length, we had to keep the periscope high in the Hercules cargo hold to get it over the ramp. We used five connected pallets to go from the 245 bulkhead [where the flight deck ends and the cargo compartment begins] to up over the loading ramp. It was a bit weird to get that off the airplane. We find all ways and means to get around cargo loaded. We look at every possibility and minimize anything that can go wrong. I get a lot of satisfaction doing this job day in and day out.

Wing Commander Matt Hegarty is the commander of 37 Squadron. He is a Hercules pilot with 3,800 hours.

The C-130H workforce was merged into the C-130J workforce two years ago to become the largest flying unit in the RAAF. The squadron now consists of more than 500 people. Some rivalry may exist between the C-130H and J aircrews, but there isn’t division. We are all doing the same job in this unit but with different tools. We have different philosophies, but we’ve grown to accept those differences. None of the pilots are qualified to fly both types of Hercules. Too much time would be spent trying to keep crews dual-qualified.

Although the maintainers work in different locations with different equipment, we have a large joint force that does generally achieve partnership. In the airframe shop, for example, a technician is just one of the guys. On the maintenance line, however, we have dedicated flight line maintenance teams on the C-130H and the C-130J. Recently, we have embarked upon changes to the flight line maintenance structures and are planning to merge teams so that we ultimately have aircraft technicians qualified to work on both C-130H and C-130J.

The J has a lot more automation. Those functions are built into the aircraft. It does take some time to get used to them, though. The 3,000 hours I flew in the E and the H didn’t prepare me to fly a C-130J. But I’ll say this: The C-130J does what a C-130 has always done. It features a lot of improvements, but it is still a C-130.

RAAF C-130s have had heavy tasking in support of operations in the Middle East for nearly six years as part of the Australian government’s contribution to the war on terror. For eighty-to-ninety percent of the missions, we can use either type of aircraft. But some differences in the mission mean one type of C-130 is preferred over another. If bulk is the issue, we take the C-130J even though both aircraft have the same all-up weight. If the mission calls for crew endurance, we take an H because more crew can share the workload. If the mission calls for range, we tend to go with the C-130H because it carries an extra 18,000 pounds of fuel in the external wing tanks. Our J-models don’t have externals. Most missions are also determined by the availability of the crew.

Everything we do in an H we can do in a J. Both models are busy all the time. We do have a couple of missions that have not gone to the C-130J because we haven’t completed heavy equipment airdrop tests on the J yet and the procedures need to be finalized.

Fifty years is a very long time to be operating the same type of aircraft. The J-model looks like a Herk and sort of sounds like Herk, so the tradition lives on. Most Australians could not understand an Air Force without C-130s based here. The C-130 is synonymous with air transport in this country.

Selected RAAF Hercules Highlights

  • Disaster relief missions after floods, cyclones, and droughts in Australia, 1958-present
  • SEATO air logistics support to Thailand, 1962
  • Troop movement and aeromedical evacuation flights to/from Vietnam, 1964-1972
  • Delivery of Saber Bogong, a stud bull, a gift of the Australian government to China, 1973
  • Evacuation of orphans and also the Australian Embassy staff in Saigon, 1975
  • Relief missions into Darwin, Australia, following Cyclone Tracy, Christmas Day 1974
  • Evacuation of the Australian Embassy in Tehran, 1979
  • Exercise Distant Bridge, the first RAAF paratroop drop since World War II, 1981
  • Bullseye Tactical Air Transport Competition winner, 1989
  • Best C-130 Aircrew, Best Foreign Aircrew, and Best Overall trophies at the US Air Force’s worldwide Airlift Rodeo competition, 1989
  • Concourse D’Elegance Trophy at International Air Tattoo, 1989
  • Operation Immune — C-130s used to fly passengers inside Australia because of an airline pilot strike, 1989
  • Humanitarian assistance missions to Iran, Lebanon, Cambodia, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, and Southwest Pacific, various dates
  • Operation Habitat — Delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Kurds in northern Iraq, 1991
  • Assisted in the search and rescue of sailors in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race who were scattered after a severe storm, 1998
  • Transport of a team of doctors from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to New York City on 14 September 2001
  • Operation Bali Assist I and II, 2002 and 2005
  • Operation Falconer, special operations support in Iraq, 2003
  • Operation Slipper (Afghanistan) and Operation Catalyst (Iraq) since 2003; also currently supporting Operation Astute (East Timor), and Operation Anode (Solomon Islands)
  • Operation Tsunami/Sumatra Assist, 2005-2006
Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.