There should be an expression, "Build a better airplane, and people will fly it." Today the "better" airplane in the medium-range/lift category is the same airplane that has held that spot for a half century-the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. In continuous production since 1954, the "Herc" has enjoyed the longest production run of any airplane in history with almost 60 nations currently flying the aircraft.
The C-130J production line at Marietta, Georgia, currently has a backlog of 86 airframes -- the largest in that variant's history -- and Lockheed Martin anticipates that the annual rate of production will increase significantly in the next several years as more customers-military and civilian-sign up for the aircraft. During the past few years the production line has produced about 12 airframes a year.
The production rate is planned to increase to 16 this year -- and to 27 by 2010 -- with further increases anticipated. Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, India, Italy, Norway, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and U.S. military services operate or have C-130J aircraft on order.
The C-130J has four Rolls Royce-Allison AE2100D3 turboprop engines of 4,591 shp each. The "J" model, which entered production in 1997, also provides a "glass cockpit" and digital avionics that make the aircraft easier and safer to operate in low-altitude maneuvers and introduces an all-weather airdrop capability. The new engines, with a six-blade propellers, enhance aircraft performance in terms of range, cruise altitude, rate of climb, speed, and short airfield requirements, while halving the number of maintenance man-hours required for each flight hour.
Beyond expected production of this model, Lockheed Martin engineers are looking at improved models, including the recently unveiled "wide-body" version. Now designated C-130XL by the firm, the aircraft is being proposed to the U.S. Air Force to meet an emerging requirement for a larger version of an intratheater airlifter after 2015. Boeing is already proposing the C-17B for this role, that aircraft to have higher-thrust engines, larger flaps, and a third main landing gear; EADS North America wants to offer the Airbus A400M to meet the same requirement.
And, of course, Hercules also fly in many specialized roles-U.S. military forces currently fly the aircraft as gunship (AC-130), electronic attack and countermeasures (EC-130), search-and-rescue (HC-130), special operations (MC-130), tanker (KC-130), research (NC-130), and weather reconnaissance (WC-130) aircraft, as well as in the straight cargo/troop C-130 (and with skis as the LC-130) configuration. There have also been drone-launch/control, strategic communications relay, and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) configurations of the Hercules. Including sub-types, there have been more than 70 military and commercial variations of the aircraft.
To demonstrate the flexibility of the Hercules, the Navy conducted a series of landing and takeoff trials with a KC-130F aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal (CV 59) in October-November 1963. The Hercules made 26 touch-and-go landings and 21 full-stop landings. No carrier arresting gear was employed and the aircraft rollout was as little as 270 feet. After each of the full-stop landings the KC-130F took off with deck runs as short as 330 feet. In these trials, with Lieutenant James H. Flatley III, the primary pilot, the aircraft reached a maximum of 120,000 pounds, making it the largest aircraft to ever operate from a carrier.
Today, with the world economic situation, there will be still more impetus for other nations to procure a proven aircraft design like the Hercules, which can be supported with existing capabilities. This will also be true for the U.S. military establishment.
The current U.S. Hercules order of battle consists of:
Air Force (including Air National Guard and AF Reserve)450 C-130/LC-13025 AC-13021 EC-13033 HC-13050 MC-13020 WC-130
Navy (including Naval Reserve)20 C-1306 KC-1303 NC-130
Marine Corps (including Marine Corps Reserve)60 KC-130
Coast Guard26 HC-130