Lockheed Martin invited me down to Marietta, Georgia to have a look at the production line of the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft a little while ago. Having flown on and crawled through the bones of older C-130s as well as seen the repair and refurbishment of C-130s up at Hill AFB, I eagerly accepted the offer wanting to see what had changed on an aircraft that almost did not get made were it not for Lockheed privately investing over $1 Billion on their own without a government contract.
The basic C-130 design goes back to 1951 with the first flight in 1953, a schedule that I suspect could simply not be matched these days. The fact that the design is still in production makes it the only military aircraft in the world to be continuously produced by the same company for over 50 years. Though, saying that the C-130J is like the original C-130 is like comparing a 2012 Porsche 911 with a 1953 Porsche 356. The basic layout is the same, but everything else is completely different. The C-130 was originally conceived as a troop and cargo transport aircraft, but has seen service as a search and rescue platform, aerial refueling, special operations derivatives designed for communication access, interference and delivery, other special operations derivatives designed to serve as aerial artillery platforms, Other versions still are used for weather reconnaissance, atmospheric research, aerial mapping (I’ve hung out of the back of one C-130 making photos of the Earth below), remote sensing and firefighting. There is even a direct action modification used by the Marine Corps called Harvest Hawk.
The aircraft is in service with over 60 nations worldwide symbolized by the line of flags of customer nations on the production floor of the building. C-130Js are now flown by the United States Air Force and Air National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and United States Coast Guard; and by the governments and military of Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, India, Israel, Italy, Iraq, Norway, Oman, Qatar, South Korea and Tunisia.
I have to also say something about the building where the C-130J is finally assembled… The building itself at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, is *HUGE*. Its one of the biggest buildings I’ve ever been in and has a long history, notably being used to produce Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers in WWII. Given its size, one might assume that the entire plane was built here, but a large number of components for the aircraft are actually fabricated and sourced from all over the United States and even the world. Some components are fabricated in Pinellas Park, Florida while much of the fuselage is fabricated in Meridian, Mississippi along with the cargo floor. Many of the sheet metal components are supplied from Johnstown, Pennsylvania with other subassemblies like the rear cargo ramp are sourced from Clarksburg, West Virginia while the tail assembly seen above is made in Nashville, Tennessee.
Forward fuselage components and the cockpits are constructed here at Marietta on jigs designed to speed assembly while maintaining precision. The new C-130J is designed to reduce manning and be operated by two pilots and a loadmaster rather than the two pilots, flight engineer and loadmaster previously required. The flight deck is all new with digital avionics and mission dedicated computers that allow instrument only cargo drops with AN/APN-241 radar providing high resolution imagery and ground mapping capability. There is a sophisticated, enhanced cargo handling system as well designed to speed cargo loading and unloading, though a new lower cost model, the C-130XJ does without the cargo handling system for a substantial reduction in unit cost. All other features and performance for this model remains the same.
The landing gears are made in Canada and are designed to facilitate rough field or unimproved landing conditions. Though I’ve only flown on C-130s that have made landings on pavement, I’ve seen footage of some rough field landings of the C-130 and its impressive that these landing gears can take that kind of abuse, particularly when loaded with cargo.
Final assembly really is a beautiful thing as these planes get their wings and engines. The engines are Rolls Royce AE2100D3 turboprops generating 4,700 horsepower each and made in the UK. They are fitted with 6-blade Dowty all composite propellers also made in the U.K. The engines and propellers are largely responsible for the increase in performance of the J model (29% more thrust with 15% more efficiency), but also important are many structural weight saving uses of composites. In these assembly pictures, anything on the skin or control surfaces you see in black is a carbon fiber composite made in Australia.
The new C-130, despite being a far more capable aircraft than its predecessor is designed to be more affordable for its customers with a total cost of ownership that is substantially reduced in the C-130J, reducing by increasing fuel efficiency, reducing manning and cutting by more than half the number of maintenance hours per flight hour. On top of that, Lockheed is secretly hoping that the newer lower cost model, the C-130XJ will help preserve some market share against the potential competition from other manufacturers.
The length of time this design has been around truly is amazing, but one still gets the feeling that this plane is absolutely modern. The new cockpit, quieter engines and substantially increased performance help out, so I’ll have to find an opportunity to go along for a ride on a new C-130J and see what has changed from the passengers perspective since the older C-130H that I last had the pleasure to travel in.