When the second-generation C-130J Super Hercules made its debut, critics wondered if the U.S. Air Force needed a new tactical airlifter when the existing C-130H seemed close to perfection.
The C-130J offered higher-technology avionics, a flight crew of reduced size, more power, and (in its current J-30 lengthened configuration) more cargo-hauling capacity. But skeptics observed that a C-130J cost almost twice as much as a C-130H, one detractor called it a “glorious microchip with wings” designed by the “Nintendo generation,” and in some years Congress authorized C-130J purchases the Pentagon didn’t request.
The aircraft was initially controversial to troops in the field: the C-130J dispenses with the navigator and flight engineer found on earlier Hercules transports. Airmen were skeptical that this could work. “If they can make it work, more power to them, and they can send me to pilot training,” said a C-130 navigator at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. An Air Force spokesman said: “Having a three-person crew instead of five is a sensible move.”
Experts now seem to agree that all doubts were erased when the C-130J went to war.
Between December 2004 and December 2006, half a dozen Air National Guard C-130Js operated from Al Udeid Air Field, Qatar, mingled in among earlier C-130E/H models and supporting combat operations in Iraq. The 143rd Airlift Wing, Rhode Island Air National Guard, commanded by Col. Larry Gallogly, deployed the “stretched” C-130J-30 model that has now become standard on the production line.
“We took some pressure off road convoys and moved a lot of passengers and cargo,” said
Gallogly. “We carried an average load of seventy-five people and three pallets in a combat environment. We flew into Iraq full, hopped from base to base unloading and loading passengers and cargo, and then returned to our home base with a full load of cargo or passengers.”
Following the Iraq deployment, in July 2005, Gallogly said, he was ordered to “take a J model up to Afghanistan and leave it there for a week.” The “high and hot” conditions of mountainous Afghanistan have defeated more than one U.S. aircraft. But Gallogly said the combination of extra power, advanced electronics, and “situational awareness (SA) tools” enabled the J-30 to perform well in the perilous Hindu Kush.
Gallogly spoke of a Special Forces camp located “high and hot” at what was considered a “day only” dirt strip surrounded by Taliban and al Qaeda forces. “You were not supposed to go near the place after dark.” With the advanced navigational and situational-awareness capabilities of the C-130J-30, including its head-up display, pilot Lt. Col. Kathy Sullivan went in during the nocturnal hours, making a computer-generated final approach.
“She was engaged by a threat,” said Gallogly, not willing to be more specific but possibly referring to a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile. “She evaded the threat, restored the aircraft to normal flight status, re-engaged her approach, landed in the dark, and delivered her cargo.” Thereafter, Sullivan “took off in the opposite direction, which was not normal for this strip.”
The C-130J is “a beautiful aircraft with incredible technology,” said Maj. Julie E. Petrina, one of the Air National Guard’s most experienced Super Hercules pilots and a veteran of deployments to the war zone.
Early glitches with on-board computers and damage-vulnerable propeller blades have been resolved. The C-130J is now fully cleared for combat operations and is a routine part of multi-year Pentagon production plans. The services are studying new offspring, including a likely gunship version. The cargo-hauling C-130J-30 with its four Allison AE2100D3 turboprop engines, each rated at 4,591 shaft horsepower and with all-composite six-blade R391 propellers, has about a 20 per cent power increase over the H model. “When you can take off, climb rapidly up over the threat, and get out of harm’s way, that’s a good feeling,” Gallogly said.
In fact, Gallogly added, the whole saga of the C-130J’s acceptance by the armed forces is “a really good news story.”