WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — On Aug. 23, 1954, a plane took off from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, Calif., for a flight that would have great impact on the military and Middle Georgia.
It was the first flight of the C-130 Hercules prototype. The bulky, propeller-driven aircraft looked behind its time in an era when sleek jet planes were the new thing in aviation. No one imagined the many uses and longevity the plane would have.
Famed Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson was one skeptic. He predicted that only 100 C-130s would be built. As of this year, the total production number is about 2,500, according to Lockheed Martin. The company was Lockheed when the C-130 first flew and later merged with Martin.
The C-130 is still being produced today, as it has been from the start, at the company’s plant in Marietta. The company says it has been continuously produced longer than any aircraft in military history. It is commonly referred to as the “workhorse” of the Air Force.
Robins Air Force Base has been the caretaker of the Air Force’s C-130s since the first production plane was delivered in 1956. The base does modifications, overhaul maintenance and worldwide management on the many variations of the C-130.
The 560th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, which does the C-130 work, is the largest squadron at the base with 791 employees. Hundreds of other jobs, at least, can be attributed to the C-130 when counting various support personnel ranging from avionics technicians to security forces.
“This workload is extremely important to Robins Air Force Base,” said Jim Russell, director of the 560th. “We take our work very seriously. Our folks understand the importance of this aircraft.”
Although some older C-130s are being retired, for the foreseeable future the workload at Robins is expected to either stay the same or grow, Russell said. Part of that is because it is the only plane maintained at Robins that is still in production, so as older planes are retired, there are new planes entering the inventory.
In the world of distributing military supplies and troops, the C-5 and C-17 are the big rigs that haul cargo from the U.S. to combat theaters. The C-130s are more like the UPS trucks, getting goods from the large bases to the troops in the field, as well as dropping troops close to the enemy.
Its specialty, and one of the biggest reasons it has stuck around for so long, is its ability to land on remote, dirt airstrips with short landing and takeoff distances required.
That remains a common occurrence, Russell said, and because of that the planes come in a good bit more rugged than the other planes maintained at Robins.
But while hauling cargo and troops within the theater of operations is the primary purpose of the C-130, it has many more uses. One of the most notable is its role as a gunship.
Designated the AC-130, those planes will circle over an enemy area and rain down fire from guns protruding out of the sides of the aircraft. The effectiveness of that capability was well demonstrated in Vietnam, said William Head, the historian at Robins.
He has written a book about the AC-130, called “Night Hunters.” The planes, he said, demonstrated that in the jet aircraft era, sometimes slower is better. That especially applies to the low-tech insurgency forces the U.S. has fought from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Air power tends to be focused on faster airplanes and more sophisticated airplanes, but a gunship is low and slow,” Head said. “When we got to Vietnam, it turned out to be perfect.”
The plane has far more distinctly different uses than that. A specialized fire fighting system can be put on any C-130 to fight forest fires. Other variations can do aerial refueling, weather reconnaissance, search and rescue, and special operations. Another version has skis, so it can land on ice.
Most recently, C-130s dropped supplies to Iraqis trapped on a mountain by brutal Islamic State militants.
Lockheed Martin’s fact sheet on the plane states, “There is no aircraft in aviation history — either developed or under development — that can match the flexibility, versatility and relevance of the C-130 Hercules.”
Head said he didn’t know if he could say it is the greatest military aircraft ever built.
“I would put it in the top five,” he said. “Maybe the top three.”
Lockheed test pilot Stanley Beltz was the pilot for the first flight of a C-130. About a year later, he died after crashing in the secret test flight of another aircraft.
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