In early March 2005, a crew from Marine Refueler Transport Squadron 352 (VMGR-352) at MCAS Miramar, California, picked up a new KC-130J—the fourth new aircraft for the squadron—from the Lockheed Martin facility in Marietta, Georgia. The unit's ongoing conversion meant that the time had come to retire one the squadron's older aircraft.
Like nearly every other tanker in the US Marine Corps fleet, Bureau Number 149798 had seen its share of action in Vietnam, Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq again in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Unlike most other aircraft that had served out its career, the final destination for this specific tanker was not to be the aircraft Boneyard in Arizona. This aircraft was a little different. When the VMGR-352 crew shut this KC-130F's engines down for the last time on 1 March 2005, the aircraft was parked at Forrest Sherman Field, NAS Pensacola, Florida, where it was to be enshrined in what was then known as the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
"The fact that aircraft was finally retired in 2005 is proof that I didn't bang it up too badly," joked retired Rear Adm. Jim Flatley. In the fall of 1963, Flatley was the pilot who first landed this particular Hercules on an aircraft carrier.
This Idea Won't Go Anywhere
"There were engineers taking measurements on a Hercules and saying a C-130 was going to land on an aircraft carrier,” recalled Ed Brennan in a 1998 interview. “I didn't believe them. Later my commanding officer came around and said the same thing. I still didn't believe it, but I raised my hand to volunteer anyway. I had no idea what I was getting into."
Brennan, then an Aviation Machinist Mate First Class (ADR-1), attached to Transport Squadron One (VR-1) at the Naval Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, when his commanding officer made that startling announcement—the Test Center was indeed developing a program to land a Hercules on an aircraft carrier. And Brennan, along with ADR-1 Al Sieve, was going to be the two flight engineers assigned to the project.
The idea of taking a big aircraft with a 132-foot wingspan and landing it on what is frequently described as a postage stamp did seem farfetched. However, there was a legitimate operational requirement to test the carrier suitability of the Hercules.
The was an emergency need to resupply a carrier operating in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a common operation today but an unanticipated requirement forty decades ago. The Grumman C-1 Trader, then the Navy's carrier onboard delivery, or COD, transport, did not have the required range nor could it carry an oversize payload like a General Electric J79 jet engine, which powered both the North American A-5/RA-5 Vigilante attack/reconnaissance aircraft and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 fighter bomber populating flight decks at the time. The C-130 had both range and cargo-carrying ability so the idea of a Super COD was born.
Once the project went forward, the Test Center staff had to decide whether to have pilots with multi-engine experience learn to land on a carrier or to have test pilots with carrier landing experience learn to fly multi-engine aircraft. Carrier experience won out.
"Either I was in the right part of the line or the other pilots said, 'Give this one to Flatley. It isn't going to go anywhere,'" said then-lieutenant Flatley, the newly minted test pilot chosen to lead the project. "In flight test, you have to earn your spurs. I had just reported to the Carrier Suitability Branch at Pax River and this was my first project as a test pilot. It was a rather unique assignment."
Lt. Cmdr. W. W. "Smokey" Stovall, the lead test pilot on another project at the time, volunteered to be copilot on the C-130 trials.
The trials aircraft, 9798, was in service at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, and was chosen at random. The aircraft was flown back to what was then known as the Lockheed-Georgia Company in Marietta on 8 October.
Only minor modifications were made to the aircraft: the wing refueling pods were removed, a precision airspeed indicator was installed in the cockpit, and the antiskid system was replaced with the type used on commercial 727s. The aircraft was also fitted with a smaller nose landing gear orifice, which allowed for slower metering of the hydraulic fluid and made for smoother touchdowns.
"The most critical guy on the crew was the flight engineer because he knew far more about the airplane than the two fighter pilots assigned to this short-term project ever would," Flatley noted. "That sounds a little cavalier for a test pilot, but, at that point, we were not required to learn the aircraft, just to learn to fly it."
Lockheed test pilot Ted Limmer monitored Flatley and Stovall as they made their first flight from Marietta to check out the modifications. Limmer then gave the Navy pilots their check ride on the way back to Pax River. "The aircraft is so beautiful to fly and so simple to operate and it handles so well,” Flatley recalled. “Checkout was a piece of cake, especially with Petty Officers Brennan and Sieve doing all the work and worrying."
Flatley and Stovall paid a lot of attention to the ground handling characteristics of the C-130 and then focused on the slow-speed maneuvering characteristics of the aircraft in its landing configuration. The crew began practicing landings at Pax River almost immediately. Engineers from the Carrier Suitability Branch set up multiple cameras and came out to observe the first practices and take extensive measurements. "For most of the next fifty-five flight hours, all we did was go around the field practicing short field landings and takeoffs," Flatley said.
High on the list of things to be accomplished during the practice landings was to determine the optimum carrier approach speed for the C-130. While the normal approach speed for a Hercules is 115 to 120 knots, a determination was made to fly the carrier approaches at five to six knots above stall speed for the planned landing gross weight.
A second landing parameter that concerned the pilots was the aircraft’s sink rate at touchdown. Flatley and Stovall were used to flying carrier-based fighters that have a sink rate of about fifteen to twenty feet per second, so they were apprehensive about the C-130’s design limit of eleven feet per second. Even though the test data collected during the field trials indicated that sink rate was not going to be a problem, the pilots would not be convinced until they actually made the test flights to the carrier.
One of the major challenges in the final stage of a carrier approach is mastering the so called rooster tail, the turbulent air that is the carrier equivalent of the ground effect encountered when an aircraft crosses the approach end of a runway. "If the rooster tail is not handled well, more often than not, your aircraft feels like it is being sucked into a hole right at the deck rounddown,” added Flatley. "So being able to fly the desired glidescope, right to touchdown, is critical."
The crew found they could easily fly the required 3.5- to 4.0-degree glidescope on a standard approach. "It became evident very quickly that landing a C-130 on a carrier was not going to be a problem. Even the engineers stopping coming out to watch us practice," Flatley recalled.
A side trip to the Naval Air Rework Facility in Norfolk, Virginia, was made so engineers there could figure out how to get the Hercules off the ship if, for some reason, it got stranded aboard the ship during the trials. It was determined that the most practical solution would be to run a steel I-beam through the crew door and punch a hole on the other side of the fuselage and run another I-beam through the paratroop doors in the back. Those two I beams would then be connected to a third I-beam suspended over the fuselage and a crane would be used to lift the aircraft off the deck if the carrier could make port conveniently.
"If we had broken down at sea, the deck hands would have lifted the plane up with the deck crane and tossed it overboard," Brennan mused. "Hopefully, they would have let us get out first."
To The Boat
On 30 October, the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) was steaming off the Florida coast near Jacksonville. One wag at Pax River had painted, "Look Ma, No Hook," under the copilot windows of the KC-130 because there wasn't one. An arresting hook, a normal piece of equipment for a carrier landing, wouldn't have helped either because the Forrestal's flight deck had been cleared—the arresting wires had been removed to save wear and tear on the tires of the Hercules. The deck was completely empty as the air wing's aircraft were either flown ashore or parked on the hangar deck.
"It was a blustery, squally day with a forty-knot wind gusting to sixty knots and huge ocean swells. The deck was heaving twenty feet up and down," Flatley recalls. "Here is where a carrier pilot with knowledge comes in handy. Every two and one-half minutes or so, no matter what the sea state, the ship will steady out. Because of the excessive wind and sea state, we did forty-two approaches to ship just to get nineteen touch-and-go landings." Those touch-and-goes revealed that there were no sink rates in excess of five feet per second, a fact that amazed even the Lockheed engineers.
The Hercules crew first made touch-and-goes on the ship's 682-foot-long angled deck and then went down the 1,017-foot-long axial deck, where, on the next trip, the actual landings would be made. The first flight lasted five and one-half hours, two of which were spent in the Forrestal's landing pattern. Cameras placed all around the flight deck recorded the touch-and-goes from every angle.
"We had a skull session the next day with the flight test engineers back a Pax River, and all the data looked good," Flatley notes. "It was then just a matter of rescheduling the ship."
On 8 November, Flatley, Stovall, Brennan, Sieve, and Limmer approached the Forrestal underway off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A broad dotted white line painted down the middle of the axial deck greeted them on their first approach. The Forrestal's skipper put the carrier into the wind and added ten knots, which gave the flight crew a forty- to fifty-knot headwind over the bow.
After making the three warm-up touch-and-go landings, Flatley was cleared for the first full stop landing. The first approach was made at seventy-nine knots indicated airspeed.
The Forrestal's landing signal officer gave Flatley the traditional "cut" signal as the aircraft crossed the rounddown at ten to fifteen feet in the air. Flatley lifted the throttles over the gate and put the propellers into reverse pitch as he settled down on the deck. At the same time, he and Stovall stood on the aircraft’s brakes so that, when the aircraft touched down, the KC-130 was in full reverse with full braking applied. It stopped in 275 feet, actually short of where the number four arresting cable would have been lying.
"We stopped so short it kind of startled me," said Brennan. "It was like landing on a normal runway, but that big metal island on the side of the ship just beyond the wingtip was a bit scary." It was the first time he had ever been on an aircraft carrier.
"Normally on a carrier, sailors and tractors move aircraft," Flatley says. "We simply backed up with reverse thrust to set up for takeoff. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the deck hands."
In addition to testing the basic feasibility of landing a Hercules on an aircraft carrier, the project was also designed to make landings at increasingly heavier weights to determine how large a payload a C-130 might safely bring aboard. Because the aircraft was a tanker, simply adding additional fuel increased the gross weight of the aircraft.
After taking on more JP-4 to go to the next higher gross weight, the crew revved up the aircraft’s engines, set the flaps at seventy-five percent, and took off. There were only fifteen feet clearance between the KC-130's wingtip and the island.
The only restriction placed on the crew during takeoff was not to rotate the aircraft until the wingtip passed the forward end of the ship's island. "Otherwise we could have been looking down on the captain on his bridge when we took off," Flatley adds.
Three more full stop landings were made the first day, followed by ten landings on 21 November and seven more the next day. Stovall made three of the landings on the last day. A total of twenty-nine touch-and-goes were made on the four trips to the carrier.
The KC-130 weighed 85,000 pounds on the first landing. Thereafter, landings were made in progression up to a gross weight of 121,000 pounds. At maximum weight, which set the record for the largest and heaviest aircraft landing on a US Navy aircraft carrier, Flatley and Stovall used only 745 feet for takeoff and 460 feet for landing. One landing at a weight of 109,000 pounds required 495 feet to stop and that was in a heavy squall. On the last takeoffs, the crew didn't even back up — they simply took off from the point on the deck where the aircraft stopped.
The crew completed the carrier qualification tests around noon on 22 November. "We got back to Pax River and started writing the final report and collecting the statistical data. We wrote the recommended procedures so anyone else wanting to land on a carrier had the information available. We went about our business and were told not to talk about it," noted Flatley. The project remained classified officially for a year, although word got out quickly to the flying community.
The feasibility of landing a C-130 with a useful payload on a carrier was clearly demonstrated, but in the end, it simply was not practical. "A carrier with no tactical aircraft on deck makes a skipper antsy," Brennan noted. "The captain of the Forrestal gave us two hours — to the minute — each trip and then we had to go home." The Grumman C-2 Greyhound, a more practical COD aircraft, entered fleet service in 1966.
The Rest Of The Story
Stovall was later awarded the Air Medal for his work on the project. He went on to command a carrier fighter unit during Vietnam and attained the rank of captain. He died of leukemia in 1973.
Brennan was also awarded the Air Medal. He went on to become a flight engineer on P-3 Orions, accumulating nearly 7,000 hours flight time. He retired in 1976 as a chief petty officer after twenty-two years in the Navy. Four hours after his retirement ceremony, he was on a plane to Iran to work as a Lockheed field service representative on the P-3F program. He later went back to working with C-130s, this time with Coast Guard HC-130Hs as a Lockheed field service representative at CGAS Elizabeth City, North Carolina. He retired in 1998 and passed away a short time later.
Sieve shipped out immediately after the program concluded to fly Lockheed WV-1s—a.k.a. Willie Victors—Warning Star airborne early warning aircraft in Argentia, Newfoundland. Flatley lobbied for years to recognize Sieve’s contribution to the carrier landing and Secretary of the Navy Gordon England approved the Air Medal for Sieve in the summer of 2004. It was presented by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Mullins in Sieve’s hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. A crew from VMGR-352 flew 9798 to the ceremony.
Flatley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a difficult award to earn anytime but especially in peacetime. He spent the rest of his Navy career in fighters. Even though he didn't have a tail hook on the KC-130F, he counts his eighteen landings in a Hercules among his 1,608 traps, which puts him in the top ten of the Navy's all-time carrier landing list. He retired as a rear admiral in 1987. He served as the chief executive officer of the Patriot's Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, the state's most popular tourist attraction, for seven years before retiring again. Between his twenty-one grandkids and his work charity work in Charleston, he stays active. "I stay busier than I can stand to be," he noted.
After a thirty-eight-year career, the Forrestal was decommissioned 11 September 1993 and was stricken from the Navy Register the same day. In February 2014, she was towed from Philadelphia to Brownsville, Texas, for scrapping. The Navy sold the carrier to All Star Metals, a ship and oil rig recycler, for one cent.
KC-130F BuNo 149798 went on to a full career, receiving a service life extension upgrade and a new center wing box in the late 1970s. It spent most of its career with VMGR-352, first at MCAS El Toro, California, and later at Miramar after El Toro was closed and the Raiders, as the squadron calls itself, moved. In November 2001, 9798 was the first aircraft to land at Expeditionary Air Field Rhino during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It was used on a low-altitude night helicopter refueling mission and to insert elements of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s battalion landing team near the Pakistan border. A little over a year old during the carrier qualifications, 9798 was retired to what is now called the National Naval Aviation Museum forty-two years later and right at 26,220 flight hours.
Basically relegated to the status of a footnote to aviation history, the Hercules-on-a-carrier idea came back to the forefront in 2004. The CBS television series JAG featured an episode in which Cmdr. Harmon Rabb (David James Elliot) quit his position as a Navy lawyer to fly missions for the CIA. He rescues an agent and his family in a C-130 and then, after being attacked by Libyan MiGs, makes an emergency landing on the deck of the fictitious USS Seahawk. As the credits roll, real footage of Flatley's landing in the KC-130 (which can be found here) is shown along with a brief summary of the feat.
At that same time, the joint Army-Navy-Marine Corps concept of Sea Basing, or pre-positioning supplies and equipment near potential areas of operation around the world, was being discussed. One idea involved a movable facility the size of a small island with a 3,000-foot flight deck. Lockheed Martin actually received a government contract to study the concept of C-130J operations from this floating runway. But, the Sea Basing concept was later shelved.
"I am always running into people who say they were there when we landed, although I don't recall seeing that many people on the deck," Flatley observed. "This has always captured people's attention. There are still folks who don't believe it."
This is an update to a story that originally appeared in the Volume 20, Number 2 issue of Code One, published in 2005.