KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — She’s turning 50 Monday, and by all accounts she’s still got the moves.

The C-130 Hercules was born Aug. 23, 1954, entered the Air Force inventory three years later and seems destined to sashay through the skies for years to come.

Tactical airlifter. Special operations gunship. Reconnaissance platform. Refueler. Medevac. This gray lady can do it all.

“This is the plane that helped win the Cold War and it’s still out there winning other wars, providing humanitarian relief and doing anything that’s asked of it,” said Chief Master Sgt. Daniel Mars, superintendent of the 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Lockheed built the first Hercules, a YC-130A, in Burbank, Calif., and it made its maiden flight from Burbank to California’s Edwards Air Force Base 50 years ago Monday, said Master Sgt. Randy Bergeron, senior military historian for U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

USAFE used its first C-130 in 1957 during an exercise in France. It has been a key weapon in the theater since then, he said.

Renowned for its versatility, the Hercules can handle 42,000-to-44,000-pound maximum payloads and land on dirt strips, ice fields and muddy backwaters.

From the jungles of Vietnam to the steppes of Central Asia to the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, the Hercules — named for the Greek god with legendary strength — goes anywhere.

“It has such a rich history,” Bergeron said.

In all, Lockheed built 2,200 C-130s. And despite her age, the Hercules still woos warriors the world over. Today, 60 nations use the aircraft in 70 variations, according to the company’s Web site.

“They grow a personality,” Mars said.

It’s no wonder. Ramstein’s two Hercules squadrons use some of the oldest C-130s in the inventory. Maintainers keep them in the air, sometimes building replacement parts from scratch.

Mars jokingly calls the job “vintage aircraft restoration.”

“They sweat in it, they bump their heads in it, they bleed in it,” he said of the maintainers. “They put in 12 [to] 16 hours a day and sometimes more in it. When it takes off, there’s no other sense of accomplishment you can compare it to,” Mars said.

And, it invariably takes off.

“After you’ve flown it for a while, there’s a comfort to it,” said Lt. Col. J.R. Reid, commander of Ramstein’s 37th Airlift Squadron. Maybe it’s the dull roar of the props. Maybe it’s the skill of the crew. Maybe it’s the stability and versatility of the aircraft. Reid couldn’t put his finger on it.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re flying into a hostile area of Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) or to Timbuktu, Africa — which we have done — or to Balad, Iraq. It instills the confidence to do the mission,” Reid said.

Lockheed Martin continues to roll out the newest model — the C-130 J. The Air Force regularly retrofits older models with the latest technology.

Thousands of airmen and airmen’s children have cut their teeth on the C-130 Hercules. Thousands more have sunk into its trademark web seats, blocked its roar with yellow earplugs, and held on for an E-ticket, corkscrew tactical landing in a war zone.

“This is an airplane that wins your affection,” Mars said. “It’s the greatest propeller-drive aircraft ever built.”

C-130’s history

Here are just a few key events in the history of the C-130 Hercules, which turns 50 Monday.

• Aug. 23, 1954: The first of two YC-130A test aircraft makes its maiden flight from Burbank, Calif., to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Only two prototypes were assembled at Lockheed’s plant in California, while more than 2,200 aircraft have been built in Marietta, Ga.

• September 1957: The 317th Troop Carrier Wing flies the first C-130 into U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s theater during an exercise held in France.

• July 1958: The C-130 carries its first redeployment of troops from USAFE back to the United States from Lebanon.

• October 1963: A C-130 lands on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

• 1964: C-130s play a key role in dropping paratroops into the Congo to free hostages held by Congolese rebels.

• 1968: The first C-130 lands at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

• 1960s-present: Heavily involved in humanitarian missions, the plane takes part in Operation Provide Relief in Somalia in 1992 and Operation Restore Hope in Rwanda in 1994.

• 1980s-present: Although an older plane, it is involved in recent missions including Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, Operation Just Cause in Panama, Operation Desert Storm (the loss of an AC-130 during the Persian Gulf War was the single largest air loss of the war — a crew of 14 people), and Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan.

—Source: USAFE historian

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