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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Columnists > Looking Back: At Vietnam

The Versatile and Venerable C-130E Hercules

Feb 7, 2019

By Capt. Richard R. Freda, (Ret.) - columnist


In the history of large military transports, there has been few aircraft as iconic as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Starting in 1950, thousands were produced in various configurations and flown by dozens of countries. Even the vaunted Hurricane Hunters of today's news utilize a modified C-130H. The aircraft has also seen service: as a tanker--including both refueling and fire fighting; as a tactical resupply and paratrooper drop mission in Vietnam (54 lost in combat!); for long range search and rescue; on skis to supply scientists at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica and recently taking the form of a powerful aerial gun platform. The awesome AC-130J Spectre. (That story for a future column.
The following covers some of my experiences flying The Hercules.

First Experience

In mid-1962 I had just completed helicopter training, but, due to a quirk in the system, instead of continuing in helicopters, I was assigned to the 19th Military Airlift Squadron (MATS) at Charleston AFB, S.C., after first completing C-130 transition training in Nashville, TN. I was eager to get “checked out” operationally on this new aircraft--but October of 1962 saw the Cuban Missile Crises arise. Since I was not yet line qualified, I was sent to Pope AFB in N.C. to serve as ramp control officer. My job was to patrol Pope's ramp helping to coordinate several squadrons of Tactical Air Command C-130's preparing to transport the 82nd Division paratroopers on an pre-imminent airstrike against Cuba, awaiting the “T-minus”countdown to launch. At T-1 hour, the command was transmitted to “start engines”. The roar of hundreds of turboprop engines was deafening. With little more to do, I pulled my ramp vehicle aside to observe history. Within the next 30 minutes, apparently the Russians “blinked,” and Castro was denied the sight of over 5,000 very tough, very ticked off paratroopers floating onto his island!

The Road to Aircraft Commander

Shortly thereafter, I began the “check out” training as a line pilot, an arduous process that took some 1,500 hours, to become a qualified Aircraft Commander (AC). My first trip as AC was as unforgettable as my first solo in a T-33 jet two years previous. In command of a C-130E, with a crew of eleven, it was a thrill. We crossed the Atlantic at night, refueling in Labrador and landing about dawn in England. The next few days we flew supply missions to Germany and France.

Worldwide operations

The next two years would provide experiences of a lifetime, especially for a kid, that except for college--had never been outside Sullivan County! My squadron was tasked with a variety of missions in addition to standard transport flying. I trained to proficiency in low level formation, troop drops and even jet-assisted takeoffs--(the C-130 could be equipped with six small rockets along side the fuselage!)
The 19th MATS squadron flew missions all over the world. For example, in just one month, I flew via Brazil and The Congo, to Johannesburg S. Africa (after low level “buzzing” some elephants in Kruger park!) This was followed a week later, with a trip to the far Arctic, (where I got to buzz a polar bear!). We also flew potential water rescue, with divers aboard, for the early Gemini space missions. We had aircraft on-station all around the globe. I spent a week of this alert duty in Panama, but none of our aircraft were needed to rescue a downed space capsule. Before volunteering for service in Vietnam in late 1965, I flew several supply missions to S. Vietnam, across the wide Pacific, island hopping for about twelve days before returning to Charleston via Alaska (where I got to buzz a herd of caribou!)


Looking back over a pilot career of some 36 years, I flew and/or commanded fifteen various aircraft, but logging over 3,000 hrs in the versatile C-130 was a highlight. It was big, powerful, forgiving, and simply a joy to fly and command. My flying days would end about 30 years later (with over 20,000 total hrs!) as Captain of an international American Airlines Boeing 767, a position which paid a lot more than a USAF C-130 pilot--but, I never again got to buzz anything!

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