By LOREN B. THOMPSON ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 9 (UPI) — By the time the Cold War ended, the U.S. Air Force’s C-130 fleet was beginning to show signs of age.
The service had bought nearly 400 Vietnam-era “E” variants of the Hercules for use by the active-duty force, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. Many of these planes were approaching the end of their design lives and could only be kept in a high state of readiness with increased inspections and maintenance. Based on a projected requirement for at least 168 new C-130s, Lockheed Martin expended its own funds to develop an improved version of the plane that became known as the C-130J Super Hercules.
Although superficially similar to earlier versions of the C-130, Super Hercules is a fundamentally different plane. It can fly higher, longer and faster with more payload. It can take off and land on shorter runways. It requires less manpower to operate and maintain. It is more reliable and survivable. And it makes more efficient use of ground infrastructure.
More than 150 “J” variants have been delivered to domestic and foreign customers in two configurations: a baseline variant that roughly matches the outline of earlier versions, and a stretched variant that extends the cargo compartment by 15 feet. The stretched version is expected to replace most of the aging C-130Es in the Air Force inventory, and a brief review of its features explains why the service plans to continue production of the newest Hercules for the foreseeable future.Compared with legacy “E” and “H” variants in the Air Force inventory, Super Hercules offers major gains in virtually every measure of operational performance.
Legacy planes can carry a standard 18-ton load about 1,200 miles before they need to be refueled, whereas the C-130J can carry the same load 2,000 miles. Alternatively, the stretch version of the C-130J can carry 31 percent more paratroopers, 33 percent more pallets of equipment or supplies, 39 percent more combat troops and 44 percent more aeromedical evacuation litters. It can accommodate heavier loads with larger dimensions, such as helicopters and combat vehicles, while still taking off in shorter distances than the older planes, and then climb faster to cruising altitude once it is airborne.
In addition to being able to carry larger loads further, Super Hercules can also carry them faster, because its cruising speed of 400 miles per hour is about 20 percent greater than that of the C-130E. The enhanced capacity of the “J” variant is especially noteworthy in the extreme heat of desert operations, where the new plane can deliver 40 percent better payload/range performance than earlier versions.
The interior of the C-130J has been completely redesigned to take advantage of new technology and assimilate lessons learned from recent military operations. Every feature of on-board operations has been simplified and, where feasible, automated. The redesign was so successful that the crew size has been cut in half, from four personnel to two — a pilot and copilot. Perhaps the most important facet of interior redesign, though, has been the way in which cargo space has been organized for rapid reconfigurability. By using innovations such as flip-over rollers, it is now possible to reconfigure the cargo area for different loads in about five minutes rather than the traditional 25. This has big advantages in supporting forward-deployed troops, because the planes can get in and out of small airstrips more quickly, affording maximum efficiency in the utilization of scarce ground infrastructure.
Other improvements bolstering operational flexibility include an aerial refueling system that can offload fuel faster and an automated airdrop system that delivers parachute loads more precisely.The same performance features that make Super Hercules more flexible and productive also make it more survivable. Greater speed, higher cruising altitude, longer range, less time on the ground and faster climb-out all reduce the plane’s vulnerability to attack. Those performance gains have been achieved while still reducing the aircraft’s noise and heat emissions.
In addition, the C-130J has been equipped with an integrated defensive system that allows it to cope with threats across the electromagnetic spectrum. The system includes an advanced radar warning receiver to alert the crew when it is being tracked, similar devices to detect approaching missiles and laser target-illuminators, and countermeasures such as flares, chaff and decoys that confuse homing warheads.When these defensive capabilities are combined with the situational awareness afforded by improved night vision and terrain avoidance systems, the options that the pilot and co-pilot have for protecting themselves from hostile action are greatly expanded.
Photo: Copyright USAF