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Hercules

The final goodbye as the C-130 reaches the end of the runway with the RAF

THE association of the British military with the Lockheed C-130 Hercules is a strong one, nostalgia for the aircraft extending far beyond the RAF, many journeys for service personnel beginning or ending with a seat on a Fat Albert or Herc.

Following the recent UK tour of three of the aircraft to mark the end of its 56 years of service, their last public appearance was as part of the flypast for Trooping the Colour, ahead of their official retirement on June 30.

The decision to bring forward the withdrawal of the fleet by a decade was a contentious one, with question marks over the readiness of the A400M to pick up the considerable workload of the C-130.

 RAF Hercules

An MoD spokesman explained: “The Hercules C-130 has served the RAF and the UK well but the time is now right to replace it with a more modern, efficient, and capable aircraft. The Atlas A400M, is the next generation of tactical air transport and will not simply replicate how the C-130 currently delivers missions.

“It offers many advantages over the C-130 including a greater range, larger payload capacity and modern technology which allows new, smarter ways to operate. The Atlas A400M delivers for UK Defence daily and will continue to do so into the future."

The history of the C-130, affectionately described as the workhorse of the RAF, dates back to the 1950s, but it was the 1960s that Britain was looking to replace the likes of the Blackburn Beverleys and Handley Page Hastings, turning overseas when plans for a ‘home’ transporter were cancelled.

The four-engine turboprop C-130 was already proving popular with US allies, the Hercules’ ability to land and take-off on surfaces other than the typical tarmac runway helped support roles such as dropping troops in remote locations, and supporting humanitarian efforts in regions hit by natural disaster.

Hercules of 24 Squadron in 1968

(Hercules of 24 Squadron in 1968)

It was December 1966 that the first Hercules arrived in the UK at Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge, subsequently delivered to No. 242 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at Thorney Island in West Sussex, an initial order of 66 made. The aircraft had been in production for more than decade ahead of its arrival in the UK, Lockheed responding to the USAF’s need for a military transport aircraft following the outbreak of the Korean War.

The first production C-130A Hercules entered service in December 1956, Lockheed going on to create an array of variants for US and foreign markets. Able to accommodate a wide variety of over-sized cargo, and its ability to be rapidly reconfigured depending on what was needed to be carried, it was ideal for the numerous RAF operations across the world.

It would be September of the following year that No. 36 Squadron became the first to be equipped with nine Hercules at RAF Lyneham, the crews drawn from Beverley and Hastings units.

It was estimated that each individual aircraft of the initial order of 66 of the C-130K variant was costing £900,000 from Lockheed; the present-day replacement, the Atlas A400M Atlas, comes in at around £110million per unit for comparison.

It was February 1968 that No. 47 squadron received their first Hercules, the unit operating the aircraft from then until June 30 this year, the squadron most associated with the aircraft – No. 47 was front and centre of operations in April and May this year that saw key personnel evacuated from Sudan when fighting broke out across the country.

Hercules of 47 Squadron in 1977

(Hercules of 47 Squadron in 1977)

From the late 1960s up to 2023, the C-130 has been involved in almost all operations and exercises of the British military, perhaps most notably during the Falklands War in 1982; the Hercules may not have been lauded like the Harrier and Vulcan during that particular conflict, but its role was essential.

The RAF’s Hercules were the first aircraft into action a day after the invasion, four departing Lyneham for Gibraltar to set up an air bridge to Ascension. Soon after it was realised that due to the distance needed for aircraft to travel to support the Task Force, air-to-air refuelling (AAR) capability of the RAF’s transport fleet would be required.

Marshall Aerospace of Cambridge were charged with the task of fitting AAR probes and additional fuel tanks to the Hercules C1s as part of Operation Corporate, the 24/7 flights that kept supply lines open to the Ascension Islands and then beyond to the Task Force and the Falklands – the only way of delivering urgent supplies to the ships once they’d departed Ascension would be by Hercules dropping off by parachute into the sea.

One No. 70 Squadron crew operating from Ascension Island set a then world-record air drop mission with the augmented Hercules, flying to the Falklands and back with support of Victor Tankers, a mission that lasted in excess of 28 hours.

With the Victors heavily committed in South Atlantic operations, six Hercules were also converted to boost the tanker numbers, the C.Mk 1K supporting Harriers and Phantoms, the first completing its maiden delivery flight on July 5, 1982.

In the early 1990s the MoD identified the need for a replacement for the Hercules, and while the European FLA (Future Large Aircraft) project was considered, it became clear the best replacement for the Hercules was an updated Hercules, the C-130J arriving at Lyneham in November 1999.

RAF Hercules taking off from RAF Brize Norton

(RAF Hercules taking off from RAF Brize Norton)

The C-130J was soon working intensively during Operations Telic (Iraq) and Herrick (Afghanistan), alongside the older Hercules fleet, accumulating flying hours more rapidly than anticipated as Britain and its Allies were involved in numerous overseas conflicts. That increased workload was seen as a factor in the decision to bring forward the fleet’s retirement by a decade, June 30, 2023, also marking the disbandment of No. 47 Squadron.

In its 56-plus years’ service with the RAF, the Hercules is an aircraft known as much for its humanitarian efforts as its military work, and one thing is for certain, no one will ever forget the Fat Albert.

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