The good, the bad and the ugly truth of the RAF C-130 Hercules

Interview with RAF C-130 Hercules pilot David Thombs

After 57 years of outstanding service in both K- and J-form, Britain’s Royal Air Force has taken the unpopular decision to retire the beloved C-130 tactical transport. Former RAF C-130 pilot, David Thombs, reveals the good, the bad and the ugly truth of the C-130.

“Wherever you find a war about to start there are always two aviation constants: the KC-135s will start appearing in strange places – and the world’s Hercules will start moving.”


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Describe the C-130 in three words: Ubiquitous, adaptable and loud.

What is the best thing about the C-130? Wherever you find a war about to start there are always two aviation constants: the KC-135s will start appearing in strange places – and the world’s Hercules will start moving.  Usually this will happen with a bunch of bodged on modifications, loads that aren’t yet cleared for carriage and or a stick of paratroopers that are out of currency.  Above all, despite outwardly appearance, inside the thing it’s as noisy as hell, all Mks, no exception.  Our Ground Engineers had to pass a Hercules GE Sim ride as part of their selection.  It involved getting in a hammock in a cupboard under the stairs and switching the hoover on alongside.  If you could sleep for six hours, you were in.

In which air arm did you fly and which unit? When? 

The C-130K leaves RAF Brize Norton for the final time.

Royal Air Force between 1989 and 2004.  LXX Sqn ’93 to 99.  Handling Sqn 99 to 2002 then 24 Sqn 2002 to 2004.

How are C-130 pilots different to fighter pilots? We were always described as ‘Aggressively below average’ by our small jet colleagues.  That said you had to be good at:

A.  Flying a big aircraft.  Sound obvious but handling a C130, double asymmetric in a cross wind requires good hand eye coordination.  Dropping people and stores at 1.1 vs at FL250 whilst depressurised could focus your mind somewhat too.

B.  Crew management.  It’d a team effort.  Some of the best Captains never touched the controls.  When things get tough, let your mate in the right-hand seat keep things the right way up whilst you do the big picture stuff.

C.  We didn’t argue the toss over who was the greatest at the end of every trip.  No need, we knew it wasn’t us.

Low speed handling.  You could do a wing over in a Scottish glen in the thing if the weather closed in.  Super stable at 1.25vs (Tac VaT and usual drop speed) and superb acceleration away if you needed it.

Low-speed handling.  Stalling was bad.  Power on there would be no buffet just a huge increase in rate of descent, later models suffered bad wing drop leading to complicated stick pusher/shaker systems being used. Don’t whatever you do apply the rudder in the wrong direction when asymmetric. You can build up and aerodynamic spring type force that when corrected caused a USAF aircraft to go in backwards. Losing speed. Residual thrust, especially from the Rolls-Royce engines on the J was high.  No airbrakes meant losing speed on approach was difficult which is very unusual for a big turboprop.

C-130 Mk1/3 assessment


A. Pitch and yaw were great but the ailerons were too small.  Tac landing speeds had to be raised because of this.  Issues behind a VC10 with roll control from tip vortices.  Elevator and rudder were powerful enough to overstress the aircraft at most speeds.  At low speed the rudder was the primary lateral control with the ailerons used solely to keep the wings level.  Surprising good at turning but never roll and pull at the same time as it stresses the ‘armpits’.  Doesn’t mean you can’t roll then pull to 2.5G though.

B.  Take off run.  At light weights it could be quite startling how quickly it could get to rotate.  At higher weights and in hot weather and at altitude it suffered like everyone else.  Good on grass, sand, ice and snow.

C. Reliability 

Hmmmm.  If it needed to get airborne most things were doable without or fixable.  Usually not entirely in compliance with the AMM.  The GTC could be started with a broom and a match, the battery busbar could be connected to the main using the grounding lead and crocodile clips whilst in flight.  The engines could be slipstream started or windmill started by charging down the runway.  But they were old and things broke occasionally.  Usually in Nellis.

D.  Looks

‘A face only a mother could love’ according to a Lockheed advert in Flight Magazine.  Hard to argue.

E. As a tactical transport

As a tactical transport it initially suffered from ‘bulking out’ issues as really weight of a load wasn’t an issue.  Hence the stretched Mk3 that addressed this but caused tail clearance issues later down the line on strips.  Station Keeping Equipment allowed formations of up to 20 aircraft (that’s all we had with it) to maintain formation integrity when IMC, even up to release.  HAVEQUICK etc allowed us to talk to anyone.  Defensive aids became more and more effective as the aircraft aged and peaked with the C130Js.  NVGs were used for airfield assaults and even 15’ heavy drops.  I once played golf with a chap who tested the pilot retrieval system in the USA.  Possibly a step too far….but they were successfully employed catching rolls of film dropped by satellites.

F.  As a para platform 

All things considered; I think it was the best para platform out there.  Yes, the C-17 is bigger and faster but only carries a couple more troops.  No idea about the A400 only that it has initial slipstream issues.  OC 1 PARA once told me that he preferred the Dakota as if I managed to crash one he would only lose a few men rather than 80 odd, but some people are just strange.  You could drop people from upwards of 25,000’ down to 300’ if they were brave.  HALO, HAHO and the Canadian Tube all used in anger around the world.

The Canadian Tube was a large wooden tube full of stores with a drag chute to slow it to human terminal velocity. It was chucked out the back followed by some enthusiasts that were either attached to it or steered it with fancy gloves. Usually went out in the 20,000’ bracket with an opening height of around 1000’ to avoid anyone hearing the crack of the parachutes.  Sometimes as low as 400’ if needed. Through cloud and at night. Hypoxia always a worry amongst everything else. Brave people

Aid work Perfect platform, no requirement for a prepared operating base or a need for a runway near the area in distress, just chuck the stuff out the back.  Interesting piece of work done by the Belgiums on aid dropping.  In Kenya the RAF gleefully dropped grain etc from 50’ watching it bounce and explode its way down the DZ.  The Belgiums slowed right down and dropped it from 1000’.  The bags soon lost their free air forward throw and hit the ground largely vertically and amazingly remained intact, presumably much to the relief of the people trying to pick them up.  Aid work can be messy, any aircraft that you can hose down both inside and out at the end of the day is a winner.

H.  Cockpit comfort 

Biggest and best seats in aviation.  Plus two beds on the flight deck.  Difficulty was, staying awake.

I.  Pleasantness of long flights

As above.  Comfy but slow and noisy.  Toilets terrible if even fitted.  Great view of the world.  Food usually great from Lyneham or from hotels.  Just sit back, close your eyes and imagine a party heading towards you at 0.42M.

J.  Ease of refuelling  

AAR was difficult.  Behind the VC10 we lacked speed and the engines would often become temp limited forcing a ‘toboggan’ descent to give the C-130 some overtake.  Roll behind the 10 was a bad thing because of the vortices from its wingtips requiring left and right to be carried out using your feet.  The slow speed basket was even worse, the VC10 would put out slats, aileron upset would activate and the thing would try and shake poor old Albert to pieces.  Lost two HF aerials doing that.

What is the biggest myth about the C-130? You can put the engines into reverse in flight.  Best not to really.

Tell me something I don’t know about the C-130

They float very well.  A Columbian C-130 ran out of fuel and ditched.  It was subsequently towed toward harbour but never quite made it.

My most memorable flight

So this is a long story.  Back in the day, the House of Commons Armed Forces Select Committee would spend a couple of days on a Jolly Boys outing around the MoD.  Back in ’96 it was RAF Lyneham’s turn to provide the entertainment and, perhaps unwisely, the Station Commander asked the mighty LXX Sqn to do the honours.  At this point it should be pointed out that whilst no one was actually hurt during the day we all needed a long sit-down afterwards.

The day started early.  The MPs and associated minders (none below the rank of Air Cdre for heaven’s sake) were awaiting us at Lossiemouth after a day of fact finding and a night on the raz.  We launched as a 3-ship from Lyneham using SKE to get us above the weather before settling down to a late breakfast during the transit up north.  A gentleman’s arrival over the fast jet community ensued followed by a nice lunch in the Mess.  All was good.

Post-lunch, the MPs boarded.  I got Nicholas Soames amongst others.  Off we set, down the Great Glen at 250’ to a chorus of disapproval and associated vomit as it was a little bumpy.  Un-deterred we pulled out of low-level and went in search of a VC10 that we’d booked over the Irish Sea.  Sure enough, it was there, heading the wrong way and not showing any signs of slowing down for us.  The leader asked him to perform a couple of S turns to help us out.  This is where things started to go awry.  Whilst myself and number 3 cut the corners to catch the 10, the leader just followed his ground track which went we met, rather unbriefed  at the same altitude in the same place. Much to everyone’s amusement.  Recovering our dignity, we tanked from the 10 before gratefully seeing it push off back to Brize to leave us on our way.

Once again we failed to learn from our errors.  Back into low level at Llandudno looking for the A5 pass had our guests again regretting their 4th Merlot earlier.  Back up to medium level for a brief tour of Wales then on the way to Pendine Sands.  Now I know that landing on a beach is all the rage now but it wasn’t then.  People had concerns about the tides, markers and the unexpectedly large crowd that had gathered where Babs met its fate, hopefully not in expectation of similar excitement.  Luckily nothing really went wrong and we soon had 3 C-130s taxiing around on the beach looking nervously at the tide and wondering whether we’d actually done enough research into sand based acceleration performance given the rate of deceleration we had experienced.  Still we got airborne and I slung in a swift 60° AoB departure as I knew my Uncle Bernard was in the crowd.

Down the Bristol Channel we went and back to 250’ on the run in to the Salisbury Plain Training Area.  We were full of two Medium Stressed Platforms each, around 30,000 lbs in weight.  We kept things gentle as the loads were unrestrained and ran into Keevil DZ for a nice elegant drop.  Subsequent recovery to Lyneham was reasonably uneventful although we appeared to have, once again, attracted a largish crowd of what we hoped were well-wishers.

That wasn’t really the case.  Dear old 101 Sqn had raised a couple of issues (as had the chap in charge of DERA Pendine).  My Uncle Bernard seemed happy but it turned out he was in somewhat of a minority.  Determined to limit the damage the MPs and high paid help retired to the bar.  Didn’t end well as it turned out.  People had been drinking in there for a while.

Flying on NVGs was interesting as the early aircraft were not designed or modified effectively for it.  Drop heights down to 15’ were common.  High altitude parachuting, IMC formation flying and AAR (both giving and receiving) were day-to-day events.  When combined with a requirement for every crew to be current at all times in worldwide route operations it was quite a thing to keep on top of it all.

Of its rivals which comes closest and which is the worst?  C-17 can drop a load heavier than a C-130 max landing weight from a speed below the C130 stall speed.  Truly excellent thing.  The Transall was a horror show as was some of the stuff Antonov produced.

The Transall was just so slow. I only ever overtook three aircraft in an airway, a Mk3 C130 when I was in a Mk5, a Transall and a Dakota.  Very strange flat flightdeck where only the pilots appear to be able to see out. The French scared me to pieces in one at low level leading an RAF C-130. As the weather closed in they slowed right down which was impressive as flat out the thing only managed 180kts then started circling. Our aircraft behind got a face full of Transall before pulling out into the cloud. Something to do with the lack of low level Air Traffic Control in France apparently.

The An-12 literally fell to pieces in my hands. We had agreed a slightly illegal co-pilot swop the night before in Ancona during the Sarajevo airlift which I started to regret when I was told to always wear a hat to avoid getting hydraulic fluid in my hair. Next was setting the millibar setting on the peculiar altimeter with a screwdriver as the knob was by now somewhere in amongst the control runs under the seat. Still, the chaps seemed unconcerned, the food was great and apparently there was absolutely no requirement to flare the thing, it kind of just gave up flying and belly flopped down. That said, it was better than the Transall, felt like it was made out of concrete.

Your opinions on the RAF’s C-130 retirement and the A400M? The German AF is still buying C-130s and we are selling ours, read into that what you will.  There are a lot of customers for ours as well.  Ask yourself why there are so few in museums or guarding gates.  The A400 is expensive and has a long way to go.  Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt for now.

What kit should have been added to the C-130? Airbrakes please. JATO rockets.  That cruise missile dispenser built by Lockheed.  Bigger ailerons and a decent toilet.  Perfect otherwise.

Some crazy things that the C-130 did? 

Have a quick look at NVG TALO, SKE, Khe Sanh and all that kind of stuff that only the C-130 ever really did. ULLA was pretty scary at night as were the night clubs in Gander and Goose along with the bar staff at the Akrotiri Arms.


VOLUME 2 is now fully funded and may be pre-ordered here.


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