Designed to carry only 90 paratroopers, the Hercules's belly was bursting with far more people than that. Its lone pilot, a VNAF major, pushed its four Allison T56 turboprops to full throttle and began his takeoff down the 10,000 foot runway.
At the opposite end of the runway, the airplane still hadn't taken wing.
But in the runway's 1000-foot overrun, the C-130 staggered into the air. After a harrowing flight, it touched down three and a half hours later at U Tapao Royal Thai AB, southeast of Bangkok. On the ramp, American personnel were visibly surprised as they watched 452 people disembark. With herculean effort, the C-130 had lifted more than 20,000 pounds above its operational limit.
Compared to high-profile jet fighters like the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Lightning II, the Hercules looks like a bloated throwback. But what it lacks in sleekness it more than makes up for in heart. Like the A-10 Warthog, it's the Hercules' awesome capability that makes it a total badass. Simply put, the C-130 is a do-anything aircraft and its service record shows it. Lockheed says the C-130 has flown at least 100 different missions in its 63-year-old life, including its most recent return to the military limelight.
During the Korean war, the Air Force recognized it had no airplane capable of airlifting combat troops over medium distances to short, austere airfields. In 1951, Boeing, Douglas, and Fairchild presented alternative proposals, but ultimately the USAF chose Lockheed's design. Willis Hawkins, who would go on to design the Corona satellite, Polaris missile, and M1 Abrams tank, created the winning design and described the C-130 in a mere 110-page document. Compared to Lockheed's 2,500-page F-35 proposal, the C-130 writeup is a breezy read.
According to Lockheed Martin historian Jeff Rhodes, Hawkins' design team took the M551 Sheridan Tank, the largest piece of equipment the Army needed to airlift, and "drew a circle around it and that set the diameter of the fuselage." As for the fuselage's 40-foot length, its inspiration came from somewhere else entirely. "The basic C-130, aft of the cockpit and before the ramp, is the length of a railroad boxcar," Rhodes says.
"We've been accused of making a pilot's airplane," says Lockheed Martin C-130 Chief Experimental Test Pilot, Wayne Roberts. The latest C-130J model upholds the Hercules' reputation as a sweet-handling airplane. Roberts adds that the Herc is so flexible, it can fly at speeds as low as 80 knots with one engine out.
With its digital cockpit, automated flight systems management, six-blade Dowty propellers and Rolls-Royce AE 2100 D3 turboprop engines, the latest C-130J/LM-100J enjoys one-third better range, 15 percent better fuel efficiency, and 25 percent more thrust than legacy A-H models. New features from a sophisticated heads-up display to optional carbon brakes and upcoming next-gen radar make the C-130 more effective than ever before.