Australian Hercules

Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has operated a total of forty-eight C-130 aircraft. The type entered Australian service in December 1958, when 36 Squadron at Sydney’s Richmond Air Force Base accepted the first of twelve C-130A-50-LMs, replacing its venerable Douglas C-47 Dakotas. The acquisition made Australia the overseas customer of the Hercules. In 1966 the C-130As were joined by twelve C-130Es, which equipped 37 Squadron. The C-130As were replaced by twelve C-130Es delivered from 1966 and the C-130Es by twelve C-130J-30 Hercules in 1999. RAAF Hercules’ have frequently been used to deliver disaster relief in Australia and the Pacific region, as well as to support military deployments overseas. The 17th of June 1963 was a red letter day for the RNZAF when the New Zealand cabinet approved an immediate order of three C-130E aircraft, including spares and support equipment and approval in principle was also given for the eventual purchase of five maritime versions. New Zealand thus became the fifth nation to purchase the Hercules.

Following the deployment of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment to South Việtnam in early 1965, the RAAF began fortnightly C-130 flights into the country from June that year. These flights were initially conducted by C-130As and carried high-priority cargo and passengers from Richmond to Vũng Tàu in South Việtnam via either Butterworth or Singapore. The scale of the supply flights into South Việtnam expanded in 1967 when 2 Squadron RAAF, which was equipped with English Electric Canberra bombers was deployed to Phan Rang. A large airlift codenamed ‘Winter Grip’ was also conducted in mid-1967 to replace two Australian Army battalions, which had completed their year-long tour of duty, with a pair of fresh battalions. The Hercules were called upon to support the withdrawal of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) from South Việtnam and Nos. 36 and 37 Squadrons undertook many sorties to fly equipment and personnel out of the country during 1971. In late 1972 C-130s were used to withdraw the last remaining Australian force in South Việtnam, the Australian Army Training Team Việtnam; the final elements of this force departed aboard two Hercules on 20 December 1972.

As well as transport operations, the Hercules flew many evacuation flights out of Việtnam to transfer wounded or sick personnel to Australia, via Butterworth, for further treatment. These flights were initially conducted as part of the regular courier service and the patients and RAAF nurses had to endure uncomfortable conditions as the aircraft had only rudimentary facilities for personnel on stretchers. Separate evacuation flights began on 1 July 1966 and continued at fortnightly intervals until 1972; more flights were made during periods in which 1 ATF suffered heavy casualties. While the flights were generally successful, only C-130Es were assigned to this task from May 1967 after an article criticising the use of noisy C-130As to transport wounded personnel was published in The Medical Journal of Australia. The C-130Es provided much more comfortable conditions and were capable of flying directly between South Việtnam and Australia when required. A total of 3,164 patients had been transported to Australia by the time the C-130 evacuation flights ended in early 1972. The Hercules also returned the bodies of servicemen killed in Việtnam to Australia.

Many of the RAAF C-130s were redeployed to South Việtnam shortly before the end of the war in 1975. The rapid North Việtnamese advance during the Spring Offensive displaced hundreds of thousands of South Việtnamese civilians and the Australian Government deployed a detachment of Hercules to Saïgon in March 1975 as part of an international aid effort coordinated by the United States. This force, which was designated Detachment ‘S’, had an average strength of seven C-130s and about one hundred air and ground crew and was initially used to transport civilian refugees away from the front lines. After South Việtnamese soldiers were reported to have been transported alongside civilians, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam directed that the Hercules were to only carry humanitarian cargo. As the North Việtnamese advanced on Saïgon, Detachment ‘S’ was moved to Bangkok in Thailand, but continued to fly into South Việtnam each day. Overall, Detachment ‘S’ had carried 1,100 refugees and 900 tonnes of supplies by the end of the war. On 4 and 17 April, aircraft of the detachment flew 271 orphaned children to Bangkok as part of the US-led Operation ‘Babylift’. In late April, two of 37 Squadron’s C-130Es were assigned to the United Nations to transport supplies throughout South East Asia; this force was designated Detachment ‘N’. The C-130Es began operations on 3 May and were mainly used to fly supplies into Laos. The aircraft transported cargo between Thailand, Butterworth, Hong Kong and Singapore; by the time this mission ended in early June, the two Hercules had conducted 91 sorties for the UN. Aircraft of Detachment ‘S’ evacuated Australian embassy personnel from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, as well as Saïgon, shortly before they fell to Khmer Rouge and North Việtnamese forces in April 1975, after which the force returned to Australia. Detachment ‘N’ also evacuated the Australian embassy in Vientiane, Laos, during early June 1975.

Nineteen of the RAAF’s fleet of twenty-four C-130s took part in relief efforts in 1974-75 after Cyclone ‘Tracy’ struck Darwin. Since then, the Hercules have been involved in humanitarian missions to New Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bali, Sumatra and New Zealand. They have also seen service during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Fijian coups in 1987, operations in Somalia in 1993, INTERFET operations in East Timor in 1999-2000 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001. In over fifty years of Australian service, the Hercules has accumulated 800,000 flying hours. 37 Squadron became the RAAF’s sole Hercules operator in 2006 when 36 Squadron transferred its C-130Hs prior to converting to Boeing C-17 Globemaster III heavy transports.

In November 2011 Australia gave four ex-RAAF C-130Hs worth an estimated $30 million to Indonesia for humanitarian and disaster relief work. The Hercules aircraft would cost about 25 million Australian dollars in maintenance to restore them to airworthiness and were due to be sold on the open market. The Australian Defence Force agreed to give them to the Indonesian military following a request for more resources to boost disaster relief in the region. On 9 May 2012 it was announced that the RAAF’s eight remaining C-130H Hercules operated by 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond were to be retired early to save $250 million in operational and maintenance costs.

The passing of the C-130H in RAAF service was marked by a fly over of the Blue mountains almost on the edge of Sydney to Cronulla a beachside suburb and an orbit of Sydney harbour in a shuddering lap of honour to say thanks for the 34 years of service during wars, floods, fires, droughts and disasters. It evoked the following impassioned response from an Australian journalist who flew on board one of the two ‘Hercs’ from Richmond Air Force Base: ‘I’m sweaty, shaking and being sick for the third time and I’ve been looking forward to this day all week. The man next to me is also being persistently ill into his vomit bag and I have no idea where the ground is outside the gyrating tin can I’m stuck in. I’m honoured and excited to be here. It’s the last flight of the RAAF’s work horse the C-130H Hercules at Richmond Air Force Base, with all twelve in the Australian fleet being decommissioned to make way for the newer C-130J model. For an aircraft that’s served our troops for 34 years the atmosphere is fitting – every second person I see is doing Movember so the base is alive with moustaches, aviators and one guy is even wearing knee-high khaki socks and shorts.

‘On the plane we take up position on what passes for seats. The first trouble I run into is when I can’t figure out how the seatbelt works. They show me that, then how to find the emergency exits, the oxygen bags (weird in themselves – think putting a chicken bag on your head) and the sick bags… which seem to be liberally sprinkled around the plane.

‘And then the C-130H starts her last show. ‘She starts like an old dancer. A slow side to side shimmy builds in the steel frame as the three metre long propeller blades start to turn. It speeds up to a shake as we taxi along the runway. Jarring, but not particularly uncomfortable. Then she starts to sweat – a diesel and kerosene smell creeping in from the engines as we bounce our way along the tarmac. The take off is faster than any I’ve been a part of. Pilot Tony Charles tells me afterward that Hercs are made to lift off from short or improvised runways. ‘You get up to speed pretty quickly,’ he says. ‘It’s not a long smooth start like a passenger jet.’ It needs to be – Australia’s fleet of Hercules have travelled enough kilometres to go around the world fifty times over carrying millions of tonnes of cargo along the way.

‘They’ve taken medical aid to victims of the Bali Bombings and Boxing Day tsunami, fodder to cattle during the Queensland floods and supplies of condoms to PNG to combat the spread of AIDS. They’ve even tried their hand at fire fighting. And they’re nothing like a passenger jet.

‘We lurch into a sprint from a standing start, bumping across the runway and into the air moments later, cartwheeling and shuddering through the entire 90 minute farewell to a trusted old friend. The hot air tosses us around so much we would be confined to our seats on a commercial flight. Not the case here – I get up and wander around. It’s a ton of fun, like being on a flying jumping castle that’s made out of steel. It looks clumsy from outside but flying these planes takes immense skill and breeds a special sort of love from the pilots. Tony Charles says the Hercules’ last flight was like losing a friend. ‘There are a few tears about the place,’ he says.

‘We dive and bank; only it’s not the banking from car ads. A C-130H banks the same way someone turns around when they hear a sudden noise behind them, which tends to leave your stomach back where you started a moment ago. The camera man across from me already looks ill. He’s leaning back with his eyes closed holding a fresh sick bag in his lap. Ha, trust TV news to cave first.

‘I’m invited up to the cockpit and watch as we cruise over the blue water of Sydney Harbour. The crew wave to the photographers and camera men crowded onto the lowered ramp of the second Hercules above us.

‘I return to the back of the plane and concede I’m going to be ill. It’s the smell – a rich, thick mess of sweat, kerosene and diesel fuel. The plane is painted black so it sucks up the heat until I feel like I’m being smoked, marinated in it while I’m shaken around. The guy beside me is next to go, vomiting into a bag he has doubled-up for the occasion. Doubling up the bag is a good idea. I think I’ll do that. Just in case. ‘If you’re going to do it you get it out of the way early,’ he tells me. ‘That’s the trick.’ ‘Two down from me one of the female journos starts as well. I wonder how the crew is all still so cheerful and if this is a right of passage. After this will I be immune to motion sickness?

‘Out the window I see sky, then water, then sky, then earth, then sky, buildings, sky, buildings, ocean, buildings, blur, blur, blur. ‘Eyes closed, no that’s worse. Eyes open. This seatbelt mystified me. Sky, water, sky, sky, ground, sky. The cameraman across from me is trying to climb into his vomit bag head first. It’s puffing in and out like someone trying not to hyperventilate only I can see wet stuff inside of it. My time has come. Eventually five out of eight of us are bested by the Hercules.

‘To my credit I didn’t bargain with god but I did make a ‘well if you’re already going to the shops’ request of him that if he was going to help the other journos he might want to see to me while he was at it. But there is something precious about the Hercules. The C-130H is a much loved part of the Air Force family – moving and supplying troops through some of our toughest campaigns. While it will now always be linked in my mind to a less-than comfortable experience to thousands of others has been a symbol of hope, relief and salvation. For the Special Forces in Afghanistan the C-130s were their ticket to safety and their supply line during hard times. For the victims of the 2004 Boxing day tsunami the C-130s were Australia’s first on the scene bringing supplies and aid to the disaster’s victims and showing them we would stand with them. For the Australian public during the 1989 pilot’s strikes the C-130s were there to transport them for four months after they were stranded away from home – action that won them a Queensland Tourism Award. They even flew the Iraqi Soccer Team out of Iraq to compete in the 2004 Olympics…where they went on to defeat the Ollyroos in the quarter finals. Well, I suppose even trusted friends can make mistakes. Members of the RAAF tell me they’ll miss the C-130H, that it’s a ‘part of history’.

‘Being ferried from the pass gate to the air strip my driver tells me she hopes the C-130s get a ‘proper send off’. They’ve earned it. It’s a symbol of everything that’s dependable and reliable in the air force, literally the ‘first to arrive, last to leave’. When I text my father, ex-air force himself, he replies: ‘Bastard. Say goodbye for me!’ Those are fond words from dad. And when I tell I failed to escape the trip unscathed he’s just as dry. Ha ha. Welcome to the wonderful world of the C-130. It’s much better up front.’

Twelve C-130J-30s were received by 37 Squadron during August 1999 and March 2000. The RAAF celebrated 800,000 Hercules flying hours in September 2014. The C-130Js had by this time accumulated over 100,000 hours and they are expected to remain in service until 2030.

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