C130 Landing at Khe Sanh Base Camp


The C-130 Hercules is truly one of the world's all-time greatest aircraft, as a look at its extremely impressive performance record will attest. A rugged airplane capable of operating from relatively short, rough, dirt strips, it's first flight was in August 1954 and no one knows when the last one will be. It's safe to say it will be well into the 21st Century, at least. One of the reasons for the Herk's resounding success is its unmatched versatility. Yeah, it's a superb airlifter, but it's also much more than that. Special versions have operated throughout the US military services for such diverse duties as satellite recovery, aerial spray missions, Arctic icecap resupply, aeromedical missions, search and rescue, US Special Forces support, aerial gunships, special reconnaissance and surveillance missions, fire fighting duties, air to air refueling tanker missions, and air command and control operations. I'm sure I've missed a few because the Herk has also been delivered to more than 60 foreign countries. In its 45th year of production, the longest production run of any airplane in history, the latest model is coming off the line featuring major design modifications that give it increased speed, range, and altitude capability. That's the C-130J, and Air National Guard and AF Reserve units have already begun receiving them. Of more than 2,200 C-130's produced so far, over 500 are still on active duty with the USAF.

The Herk is a result of the dire need for a military transport capable of lifting combat troops over medium distances and delivering them and their resupply requirements to short, austere air strips. It began doing just that shortly after the Korean War and still does it better than virtually any other airplane in the world. It does it with a crew of five: Aircraft Commander (pilot), Co-Pilot, Navigator, Flight Engineer, and Loadmaster. The aircraft commander is just as the name implies. He is in charge of that aircraft just like the captain of a ship at sea. What he says goes. The co-pilot is his primary assistant in flying the airplane and his number one backup in all procedures. The co-pilot is also fully qualified in the airplane and is capable of taking over in case of incapacitation of the pilot. The navigator's job is to know where the airplane currently is and how to direct the flight to accomplish the mission, then recover at the destination. The flight engineer is responsible for monitoring aircraft systems and controlling those not under the direct control of the pilot or co-pilot. He's a third set of eyes and ears for the aircraft commander and knows the airplane itself like an old friend. The loadmaster is in charge of the cargo cabin. He knows how to load it, in what order for the mission, and is especially watchful for the critical weight and balance criteria of the airplane. These duty descriptions are very basic and extremely simplified. All of these crewmembers have much more to do on any given mission than these few words would seem to indicate. Put the aircraft into a combat situation with lousy weather conditions and the task load increases incrementally.

The cargo delivery job can be accomplished in at least three ways, depending on the situation. First is to land and offload, then depart. A second possibility is a cargo drop by parachute, hopefully at a low enough altitude to ensure hitting the drop zone. Navigation is critical for this event. Third is by low altitude parachute extraction, or LAPES. In this evolution, the aircraft is flown over a drop zone very low over the ground and the cargo is extracted out the rear ramp by means of a parachute. There is no parachute drop, per se. The parachute just pulls the cargo out of the plane and assists in slowing it to a stop. The advantage in this is that the aircraft does not have to land and avoids delay in a dangerous area. As with most things in this life, there are tradeoffs among the three methods, and the selection of one over the other depends on the environment and the nature of the cargo.

Col James M. Morgan