C-130 History: Cargo Plane

It can be said without fear of contradiction that the C-130 Hercules is one of the most important aircraft in aviation history.

Since its first flight in 1954, the Hercules has been everywhere and done just about anything. Aircrews have flown it to both poles, landed or airdropped military supplies to hot spots from Vietnam to Afghanistan and performed countless relief operations around the globe. The Hercules has been used to drop bombs, retrieve satellites in midair, conduct reconnaissance and attack ground targets with cannons. Some models are flown as commercial transports. The C-130 has the longest, continuous military aircraft production run in history and one of the top three longest, continuous aircraft production lines of any type. 

Those who design, build, fly, support and maintain a Hercules often say the plane is without a doubt the world’s most proven workhorse— and for good reason. To date, more than 2,500 C-130s have been ordered and/or delivered to 63 nations around the world. Seventy countries operate C-130s, which have been produced in more than 70 different variants.

From the highest of air strips in the Himalayas to landing on aircraft carrier runways in the middle of the ocean, the C-130 regularly—and proudly—defies expectations. The Hercules is known for its ability to tackle any mission, anywhere, at any time.


The Birth of Hercules

As the U.S. entered into the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force realized it did not have a true military transport capable of airlifting combat troops over medium distances and delivering them to short, austere airfields. To fill this need, the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command issued a specification in early 1951 for a new medium cargo transport. 

The then-Lockheed Aircraft Corporation won the competition and was contracted to produce two prototype YC-130 aircraft on July 2, 1951. The first flight of YC-130 took place on Aug. 23, 1954, at Lockheed’s Burbank, California, plant. Its four turboprop engines enabled the YC-130 to take off in only 800 feet. In addition to its tremendous lift capability, the aircraft also proved to be far more maneuverable than expected while meeting or exceeding all of the other U.S. Air Force performance requirements.

The success of the prototypes led to a production contract. As the Burbank facility was at capacity, the entire C-130 program was moved to Lockheed’s facility—then known as Lockheed-Georgia Company—in Marietta, Ga. The first production C-130A, which was nearly identical to the prototypes, was flown for the first time at Marietta, Ga., on April 7, 1955. The C-130A featured four powerful Allison T56-A-lA turboprop engines, each delivering 3,750 horsepower and driving a three-bladed Curtiss-Wright electric-reversible propeller. 

An early problem developed with the propeller pitch-changing mechanism that was corrected by adopting a hydraulic model. A four-bladed Hamilton-Standard propeller was adopted, which was just the first of many updates, modifications, material and equipment changes, and other improvements over six decades that keep the Hercules state-of-the-art.



The LC-130, equipped with Teflon-coated skis, can land easily on snow and ice. LC-130s regularly operate from Greenland and Antarctica.



The C-130J Super Hercules flew its first flight on April 5, 1996.

One Plane, Many Missions

From the beginning, the C-130 has featured a large, unobstructed, fully-pressurized cargo hold that can rapidly be reconfigured for the carriage of troops, stretchers, passengers or airdrops of troops and/or equipment into battle zones. The C-130’s high-wing design places the cargo floor at truck-bed height above the ground. The C-130 also features an integral "roll-on/roll-off" rear-loading ramp Coupled with its tremendous lift capacity, long range, and austere landing field capabilities, it is a true tactical airlifter.

The C-130 airframe was immediately recognized for its incredible versatility, prompting it to be quickly adapted for use in supporting special mission requirements. The first of some 70 different variants – a ski-equipped version for resupplying Distant Early Warning radar sites-- was initially tested in 1957. An electronic reconnaissance version came soon after. Read more about the many missions of the Hercules.

Lockheed Martin has updated the design of the C-130 multiple times since 1954:

Aug. 1954:       First flight of YC-130A at Burbank, Calif.

Dec. 1956:       C-130A enters service (231 delivered)

Nov. 1958:       C-130B enters service (230 delivered)

June 1961:      C-130E enters service (491 delivered)

Feb. 1965:       L-100 receives FAA approval (115 L-100s delivered, including stretch versions)

March 1965:    C-130H enters service (1,202 total C-130Hs delivered)

Oct. 1968:       L-100-20 enters service

Dec. 1970:       L-100-30 enters service

Sept. 1980:      C-130H-30 enters service

April 1996:       First Flight of C-130J Super Hercules at Marietta, Ga.

June 1998:      C-130J enters service (300+ delivered) 

(It should be noted that there are multiple other C-130 model designations, which include post-production modifications that have been assigned during the aircraft’s production history and vary by customer.)

Past Performance, Future Flexibility

No matter the mission, no matter the location, Hercules has gone there, is going there and will go back thanks to its constant state of innovation. Today’s Hercs are ready for tomorrow’s missions.

The C-130 continues to be the world’s standard for tactical airlift needs, especially in the form of the  C-130J Super Hercules. The Super Hercules offers superior performance and new capabilities, with the range and flexibility for every theater of operations and evolving requirements. To date, 16 countries operate or will operate the C-130J, which has been used to set 54 world aviation records.

The C-130J family includes 11 variants and it can support more than 16 different mission requirements. The Super Hercules continues to expand its offerings with the addition of the C-130XJ (baseline version of the C-130J), the SC-130J Sea Herc (maritime patrol) and the LM-100J, the updated Super Hercules version of the commercial L-100. In January 2014, Lockheed Martin officials submitted a type design update for the L-382J (certification designation) with the FAA that will be marketed as the LM-100J, a commercial version of the Super Hercules that will bring new capabilities to a targeted market.

With the Super Hercules worldwide fleet logging more than one million hours of flying combat, humanitarian, special operations, aerial refueling, firefighting, and search and rescue missions around the world, the C-130J stands ready for its next mission and for whatever the future holds.

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Stephanie Stinn
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