RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The gray bird did a wing wave on its final pass before flying off into the mist.

The early Monday morning flight marked the end of an era as the 86th Airlift Wing bid farewell to its last C-130E Hercules, a versatile transport plane that’s been flying for the U.S. Air Force since 1973.

With the wing and U.S. Air Forces in Europe shifting to the bigger, faster and stronger C-130J Super Hercules, 14 E-models were phased out this year. Some were reassigned to other airlift wings; some were transferred to the U.S. Army for jump-training purposes, and some found what might be a final resting spot in storage at the Air Force’s aircraft “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

The 86th Aircraft Maintenance Group was the host at a small ceremony for the last of the batch to depart, with members lining up to salute the plane Monday as it taxied down the flight line.

The wing’s vice commander, Col. Douglas Sevier, a C-130 pilot since 1988, compared the E-model to a car that’s been in the family for 30 or 40 years.

“As excited as you are about getting a new car, you still kind of have that emotional attachment,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to come out and do something. We couldn’t just let them go.”

The last to go, Tail No. 72-1299, saw initial duty in the Pacific, where it was first assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines to help shuttle American prisoners of the Vietnam war out of Hanoi. It later was assigned to Yokota Air Base in Japan, and most recently, Ramstein. It participated in Operations Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, among other airlift and airdrop missions over the years, military officials at Ramstein said.

And its adventures don’t appear to be over yet: A crew from Ramstein’s 37th Airlift Squadron was to deliver the plane to Powidz air base, Poland, where the Polish air force would try to squeeze a few more flying hours out of it.

Aircraft ownership was transferred to Air Force Materiel Command and Poland is leasing the plane for 11 months, according to USAFE officials. Information on the cost of the program to Poland or the Air Force was not available by deadline.

Air crews and maintainers said that, despite the C-130’s age, Poland was still getting a sky-worthy plane.

Fifteen maintainers with the 86th AMU spent four days last week inspecting the aircraft and fixing 105 “gigs,” or minor maintenance problems. The home-check station inspection, typically done every 220 flying hours, wasn’t due until December, but the unit did it early for the transfer, said Master Sgt. Darren Veneman, 86th AMU production superintendent.

“They should be able to fly this airplane until … it’s ready to be retired next summer,” Veneman said of the Polish air force.

For others who have spent a career with the C-130E, the end of an era will come sooner. The Poland-bound fliers were the last C-130E crew remaining at Ramstein. Most are headed to new assignments within the Air Force in two months or less.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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