Flying Hercules for the US Coast Guard

Steve Parker doesn’t flew the HC-130 for the U.S. Coast Guard. Here he gives us the low-down on the demanding life of a flying coastguard.

“You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”  That’s not some ooh-rah bullshit. It’s written in blood. It’s written in the blood of my friends.

Describe the HC-130H in three words

I don’t think one can describe the C-130 in three words. I don’t do bumper stickers. How can you describe love or women or anything that forms an important part of your life in just three words?

 I was a US Coast Guard pilot, “aviator” to the purists, at Clearwater Florida, in the mid to late 1980s. But it’s a little more complicated. After a tour as a Coast Guard officer at sea on a destroyer-sized 378’ ship (a “cutter”), my flight training was by the U.S. Navy in a mixed class, as they always are, of Navy, Coast Guard and Marine pilots. In fact, all three of those services, when they earn their wings, are designated Naval Aviators. My particular orders read, “upon designation as a Naval Aviator, you are hereby co-designated a Coast Guard aviator.” I suspect it is the same for Marine aviators so that in wartime, when the Coast Guard used to be a part of the Navy (maybe still will be) all Coast Guard pilots are current naval aviators and can be plunked into Navy cockpits where needed.

After graduation from naval flight training, in an outbreak of common sense for which someone will be severely punished, I went to Little Rock Air Force Base for C-130 training. Using the same base and training personnel for all C-130 pilots regardless of service is a great idea but entirely untypical of how the military does things so, as I said, someone will probably be punished for designing a system so logical and economical. 

Then, after a couple years on Navy bases and an Air Force base, with my newly issued wings and C-130 qualification, I went to Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Florida, to serve my tour.

How are HC-130H pilots different from USAF C-130 pilots? US Air Force C-130 pilots have a different mission, usually trash hauling. They practice formation flying (same day, same way) and assault landings. Marine pilots, I think, get specialized training as tanker pilots at some point, perhaps at their home base. All C-130 new pilots got the same basic transition training in Vietnam War veteran C-130 E models with battle-damage patches, mostly instrument flying, emergency procedures, and system failures. In the simulator, they love to give you simulated fin stall so you have to put 200 pounds pressure on the relevant rudder pedal.

What is the best thing about the HC-130H? The single best thing might have been that the technicians who worked on our aircraft were also the Coast Guard aircrew. They were so clean you could eat off the deck. Some Coast Guard pilots and aircrew had prior service in the Navy, Marines or Air Force and almost everyone would rate highly in any Air Force of the world. There was an informality and camaraderie between pilots and enlisted that I did not see in the Navy or U.S. Air Force. When we were flying out of Guantánamo, as we often did, the Navy officers seemed surprised and offended at the informality between aircrew members. That camaraderie lent an especially high morale that pay dividends when we flew into some of the worst weather in the world on search and rescue missions.  

There are many good things about the C-130, including durability, flexibility for different missions, systems duplication for when things go wrong, and ability to operate under different operational conditions.

..and the worst? Two things come to mind. The landing gear is hull-mounted which allows her to turn sharply, and are designed to withstand assault landings (“take that, runway”) but they’re not designed to stand much sideload at all, so you must make sure to correct for any drift upon touchdown in crosswind landings lest you damage the gear.

We were taught that (at least by the mid-1980s) ditching the C-130 ended in everyone dying. We were told the sole exception was an Argentine C-130 that inadvertently ran out of fuel so that when she ditched she was at absolute minimum weight and maximum flotation potential due to empty fuel tanks. No one was killed as they ditched but half of them died in the brief time required to exit the aircraft.

Since we spent the vast majority of our time well out over the ocean, and since a number of emergency situations such as fuel or hydraulic based fires can render further flight impossible, I was glad that we had parachutes for all crewmembers. But right after I arrived to begin my tour, some genius bean-counter decided to save money by taking all of the parachutes off of our C-130s except for two, since the load master and drop master needed to wear a parachute as they supervised dropping pumps to sinking vessels or dropping emergency equipment in flight.

Given the inability to ditch, having only two parachutes for a crew of seven was a cost-saving idea for which someone should be shot. When I gave new crewmembers a tour of the C-130 I would point to the forward bulkhead of the cargo compartment, upon which were hanging the two parachutes and a full-sized fire axe. I would point the axe and ask them to identify it. They would say “fire axe” or “crash axe”. I’d say, “No, that’s the parachute selection tool. If you’re the first one to grab it [the fire axe], you’re probably going to get one of the parachutes.”

How do you rate the HC-130H 1710 series in the following:
A. Handling/agility As Steve Fothergill (I think) once said, using the C-130 for the air intercept work we did was like using a dump truck to do the work of patrol car. On the ground, she loaded easily using the ramp and door to the rear, and she taxied beautifully, making precise and tight turns. In the air, with a full bag of gas and a load of cargo, she handled about like you’d expect.  One duty night training flights with a partial load of gas in the cool of evening she fairly leapt off the ground and was relatively nimble in air work for a transport class aircraft.
B. Take off run- varied wildly depending upon cargo load, density altitude, fuel load, runway surface conditions. The 1710 series aircraft I flew came straight from the factory so their engines were new and performed well.
C. Reliability – receiving brand-new aircraft from Lockheed can be interesting. I’m sure they had an acceptance flight at the factory and another acceptance flight there from a Coast Guard officer but complicated new aircraft always have little surprises that show themselves during initial operations. That said, despite being new aircraft, there were remarkably few bugs and the airframes and engines proved very reliable. Thirty years of operational use identified and eliminated most problem areas. Yes, you had occasional emergencies that necessitated engine shutdown but on the whole, she was very reliable.
D. Looks – she’s never going to win a beauty contest against the Mustang or Spitfire on a Concorde or a Constillation. She’s bulbous and had a big black nose. However, the paint job did what cosmetics could. She was bright white and clean with a big red and thin blue stripe for accent.
E. As a tactical transport – she worked well as a trash hauler and you could slide in seat pallets with airline-type seats and haul a lot of people.
F. As a para platform – we didn’t drop personnel, even rescue swimmers, out of the back of 130s. Rescue swimmers deployed from the H-3 helicopters we also had on base. We would paradrop high-capacity, gasoline-powered pumps (with fuel containers) in watertight 50 gallon drums to sinking vessels to help them stop and reverse flooding of their vessels. These drops were made at masthead height in some of the worst weather imaginable.
G. For aid work – the C-130 could fly into remarkably crude airfields with all sorts of palletized cargo.
H. Cockpit comfort – most C-130s have a large air conditioner in the cargo compartment and a small air conditioner for the flight deck. Neither of those does much good when you’re flying all day-every day, low-level search and rescue or maritime law enforcement patrols at low level, bumping endlessly along with the Caribbean heat blazing through the greenhouse glass the flight deck. Most C-130 flights by the Air Force in hot environments don’t stay at such low level and can take advantage of the cooler air aloft but we endlessly bored holes in the sky at low level during all-day searches.

Our 1710 series aircraft differed in having a normal, large air conditioner in the cargo compartment, and another identical-size air conditioner attached to the fuselage for the flight deck. Even the larger-than-normal flight deck air conditioner fought a losing battle under those low-level tropical conditions but we were very grateful that we didn’t have the smaller flight deck air conditioner of previous models. All the flight crew seats had sheepskin covers which made a big difference in how comfortable they were in both heat and cold.

I. Pleasantness of long flights – long flights at altitude were about as comfortable as you’d expect, except that as a turboprop we were flying in the 20s rather than the 30s of turbojet aircraft, so we went through a lot of weather that turbojet’s simply flew over.  We frequently deployed to Guantánamo Bay, Puerto Rico, Panama, and other locations, from which we would take off, day after day, and fly low-level patrols over the Caribbean, for search and rescue, for migrant interdiction, in maritime law enforcement against drug smugglers. What that meant was beating along low above the Caribbean in the tropical heat.  Imagine driving an old school bus for eight (or twelve hours on your last day) down a badly-rutted road with a million big potholes. Flying at altitude is usually quite comfortable. Flying low all day above the Caribbean wears you out.

J. Ease of refueling- we couldn’t do air to air refueling.  The flight crew handled refueling while we were flight planning so I didn’t witness the process or deal with any of the problems that might’ve arisen. If we had the ready aircraft fueled for a training mission and were scrambled for emergency search and rescue, sometimes we had to hurriedly top up the fuel.

7. What is the biggest myth about the HC-130H?  Hard to say. Perhaps it’s the nicknames aircraft enthusiasts attribute to her. I never heard anybody in the 130 community ever refer to her as anything except “130.” Certainly, no one called it Herky Bird or Hercules or Fat Albert (except for the sole aircraft of that name which supports the Blue Angels flight demonstration team). 

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

At least one part, the floor the flight deck, was then made of wood. The chains that connected our flight yokes to the sprockets underneath the flight deck that were connected to the flight controls (and maybe the sprockets themselves) were made by the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company. During long flights, we used to quiz each other over such arcana. The pilots and flight engineer knew all the basic stuff, like all the backup systems and what was connected to an AC or DC bus and where the circuit breakers were, so we go beyond that to quiz each other about the most minor 130 trivia.

Describe your most memorable flight (long answer please) – the worst weather in the northern hemisphere is in the northeast quadrant of the cell wall of the Northeast moving hurricane. The cell wall is the most intense weather of the hurricane and surrounds the eye of the storm. One day, just as I was about to be relieved as the overnight ready crew, we were sent out to rescue a sinking ship which was under the Northeast quadrant of the cell wall of a Northeast moving hurricane. At the time of takeoff, we thought the storm had downgraded to a tropical storm but once we got in the thing, our navigator determined the wind strength from the Doppler and confirmed that the storm had regained hurricane strength.

You may have seen news footage of hurricane hunters filmed by local news people riding along, and the pilots keep their coffee cups in little holders that are like something you hang on the door of your pickup truck. Their coffee has tiny ripples as it jiggles and the reporter will point that out and say, “Oooh, it’s rough,” in the pilots will concur. Their placid ride is because they’re up above 20,000 feet and able to use the radar to pick their way between the convective towers.

In our hurricane rescue mission, we had no such flexibility. The sinking vessel was an offshore oil rig resupply vessel whose captain hadn’t had the balls to tell his supervisor that no, he wasn’t going to take his vessel and crew out into that terrible weather, and the offshore oil rig resupply folks are just going to have to wait another couple days further for their fresh food and personnel change. 

The sinking vessel had to shut down its main engines as the flooding rose to the air intakes and due to the rising water in her engine room  was about to have to shut down her auxiliary engines that powered the dewatering pumps.  If she shut down for auxiliary engines and therefore, the pumps, she would have sunk in a few minutes. Under the catastrophic weather conditions, the likelihood of getting crewmembers into a life boat on that wildly pitching deck in great waves was impossible.

As we flew towards the cell wall of the hurricane, we started getting hammered in a manner for which no aircraft is designed.  The thing that made me sad was knowing how the crew “knew” we’d get them back safe. The phrase, “I had infinite faith in men with wings until I got wings,” comes to mind.  Our crewmembers were as fine as any young men that ever lived and there was a substantial chance we were all going to die trying to save the crew of a captain who didn’t have the guts to refuse to sail into her hurricane.

The official motto of the Coast Guard’s “semper paratus” (always prepared, as in to go into action immediately). The actual, real-life motto of the Coast Guard at the pointy end of operations, the fixed wing and rotary wing pilots, small boat crew, rescue swimmers, etc., is “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”  That’s not some ooh-rah bullshit. It’s written in blood. It’s written in the blood of my friends.

As in all services, there are regulations specifying that when the weather gets above a certain intensity level, you have to abort the mission. No one ever does. We knew we were all they had. If we turn back because of the mind-boggling turbulence and off-the-charts flight conditions as we made our runs to drop pumps at masthead height, there was no else who could save these people.

We were literally swapping control between pilots every 45 seconds. That sounds idiotic and nonsensical but it happened. The extremely low ceiling, terrible visibility, and the requirements to make a successful pump drop meant you were at masthead height. In the wild turbulence the wing would drop on one side and you’d see it touch the water, or thought you did, but it must have cleared by a matter of inches because if you dug a wing tip in the water the aircraft would instantly cartwheel and you be dead. You’d wrench the  wings level for an instant and then the other wing would drop and seemingly touch the water.  On and on and on.

I saw the movie, “The Perfect Storm” thinking they would re-create through CGI effects the weather I witnessed. Nope. Not even close.  I don’t think a movie could ever come close to the insane conditions experience that day.

We made four drop runs, dropped our four pumps, and the sinking vessel was able to recover two of them, and with them, reverse the flooding, She was able to stay afloat, and dewatered enough to get their main engines running again and they all survived. They sent us a postcard saying that if we had arrived 15 minutes later they would all have been dead.

I flew into oodles of terrible weather, because when wealthy people like doctors and lawyers buy airplanes or boats, some think that the weather will defer to them just like the people in their offices, and their planes crash or their boats are lost at sea in horrible weather, the Coast Guard had to go out in that same weather to save their ass.

Some crazy things that the HC-130 did? What was your hardest or most dangerous experience?  I have one story that I relate because it may be of use of other pilots at some point. We were flying over the Bahamas in some extreme weather and the turbulence was terrific. The other pilot was flying that leg and without warning, he threw up his hands and said, ”You have the aircraft. I have vertigo!”

Needless to say, this is not the manner in which you transfer control of an aircraft. I took the controls, and said, “I have the aircraft. You have the radio.”  He squealed in a little girl voice, “I can’t do the radios! I have vertigo!” Under the conditions, his scared response, I could feel the crew thinking, “Oh, shit!,” so I told him, “I have the aircraft and the radios. Shut your fucking mouth.”

Thankfully, he quieted down. Now I had to get us through the situation. I had not said anything, but I also was suffering intense vertigo. Much as the room spins around the college student who’s had way, way too much to drink, and gets the ‘spinny beds’  as the room seemed to spin around him, the world was rotating around me vertically as if I were spinning backwards at about two revolutions per second. It was nauseating and disorienting. The level of the turbulence meant that it was impossible to engage the autopilot, which could never possibly keep up with the wild conditions.

As the world spun around me, the steam guage instrument panel flashed down, from over my head to down below my feet twice a second. I thought, “If I fuck this up, were all gonna die.” As the instrument panel seemingly whipped past my face from top to bottom, I got a momentary glimpse of the attitude indicator, then the VVI, then the attitude indicator, the altimeter, the attitude indicator, the airspeed indicator, the attitude indicator- I was doing my instrument crosscheck as the panel whizzed by. My overriding thought at the time was, “I can’t believe this is working.” But it did.

I tell the story in case anyone else encounters extreme vertigo and nausea during flight. Even with the world spinning around you, it is possible to continue the instrument crosscheck, especially now with the integrated display of glass cockpits with attitude, altimeter, VVI, airspeed, and ‘ball’ all in one combined instrument display.


Of its rivals which comes closest and which is the worst? The C-17 was envisioned as a replacement for the C-130 but its expense and its inability to do some of the things C-130 can do means the C-17 fleet is a worthy supplement to the C-130 rather than a replacement.
12. What is the role of the aircraft? – For the USCG it’s an all-purpose workhorse. Trash hauler, long-range maritime patrol, long-range maritime search and rescue, ship and aircraft detection and interdiction ops for drug and people smuggling.

13. What kit should have been added to the HC-130? A glass panel, as I’m sure they now have. We had steam gauges. We had a flight director, but the LORAN and Omega navigation systems had been decommissioned in anticipation of upcoming “Satnav” (GPS) but there were not yet satellites enough to make the system work so as we primarily worked in the Caribbean and Central America, we used  ADF navaids for some circumstances.

As each aircraft arrived from the Lockheed factory they had cutting-edge beautiful King digital ADF. The first thing that happened to each aircraft as it arrived was the avionics maintenance people would pull out these beautiful, brand-new King digital ADF and install in its place an old World War II type coffee-grinder ADF. These work better as thunderstorm finders then for finding navigation aids, and it was a constant pain in the ass to keep turning and retuning and retuning them as the receiver wandered off frequency.

Why, I would ask, are you removing the state of the art King (the best avionics manufacturer of the time) digital ADF and replacing it with its problem-prone dinosaur-era predecessor? They told me it was because they could fix the old ADF if something went wrong. I couldn’t convince them that the new units were under warranty and unlikely to fail and that we needed them for critical navigation in Central America. Someone up the food chain in the avionics maintenance department had made a decision and we never saw the King ADF units again.

My present single-engine Mooney M20R has a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit with GPS nav and approaches and it’s infinitely preferable to steam gauges.

14. What should I have asked you?  Do I miss those days? I miss the people. I don’t miss flying in some of the worst weather in the world when the other services are displacing their aircraft away from approaching storm systems, we were flying into the teeth of the storm to save some dumbass who didn’t have the sense to stay on the ground or in harbor during terrible weather.

As in all services, the personnel who don’t fly or crew boats tend to be petty self-serving, butt-covering, empire builders and ladder climbers who exists only to advance their own careers and those of their friends rather than accomplish the mission.

When Coast Guard aircraft or ship is lost and the crew killed, the unit commanding officer and their commanding officer used to get the axe after an investigation. Consequently, the Coast Guard passed a bunch of regulations saying that if the weather conditions exceeded certain parameters that the mission had to be aborted and the aircraft or ship returned to base. In real life, knowing we were the only chance someone in distress had, we never turned back. Consequently, when Coast Guard rescue aircraft are lost, the investigation declares it due to pilot error, since the pilot continued operations in adverse weather conditions beyond those allowable.

It’s just a disgusting way to cover the ass of higher ups who can blame the loss on the flight crew and protect their own career. As I said, the real motto of the Coast Guard is, “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.” It makes me bitter beyond words to read investigation reports where crews sacrificed their lives in an attempt “that others may live,” and see the mealy mouth investigators attribute loss to pilot error.

I don’t remember being scared regardless of the flight conditions. I do remember being sad to the depths of my soul on those occasions when I thought I would not be able to bring my crew back home alive. The crew had such infinite confidence that you would keep them safe and I knew the substantial chance I would not be able to do that if we were unlucky. I resented the fact that my flight crew, the best and brightest, that their lives might be forfeited trying to save some idiot who took their airplane or boat out into terrible weather because of their stupidity or misplaced self-confidence. It would’ve been a terrible bargain to throw such young lives away for fools.  Had I been lost, my young family would probably receive better benefits than the families of the enlisted crew since I was an officer. I worried how their young families would survive at things turned out differently.

Costner & bullshit

One unrelated note. In Kevin Costner’s 2006 movie, The Guardian, their Coast Guard HH-60 is headed for a rescue at sea off Alaska.  They develop a ‘chip light’ (or some other engine system malfunction indication) and elect to proceed with the rescue operation anyway.  That is realistic, and shows the real-life dedication of Coast Guard crews. But in the movie, the Coast Guard C-130 orbiting the vessel says they must return to base because they are low on fuel.  I almost jumped up in the theater to cry, “Bullshit!”  If you had a helicopter enroute to a rescue hoist, if they had a chip light or not, there is no way ANY Coast Guard C-130 would abandon them.  If the chopper goes down, the 130 has a raft to drop and can guide in rescue craft.  If I (or any 130 pilot) had been in that situation, low fuel be damned.  I’d shut down an engine to save fuel. Hell, I’d shut down two if I had to, but I’d never, ever abandon my brothers and sisters. 

God’s work

Helicopter pilots are the fighter pilots of the Coast Guard. We gave them endless ribbing in the fixed-wing vs. rotary-wing banter, but theirs is the real God’s work. No greater love, and all that. To brave storms to hoist an injured or sick crew member with the ship’s mast swinging wildly about, helo pilots and rescue swimmers and crew are amazing.  It’s different work than night traps in weather in a battle-damaged F-4 or suffering artillery barrages in Ukraine today or during the Great War, or winkling Japanese out of their bunkers on Iwo Jima but the heart required for all those is the same.


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  1. Lawrence J Zaker

    Great read. I was with you in Clearwater 82-87 as a Flight Engineer. Your article brings back a lot of memories.

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