Since late 1954, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules has been an iconic workhorse for many air forces around the world and probably the most recognised military transport aircraft of the 20th Century. It has served the RAAF for over six decades and number 37 Squadron continue to operate C-130J-30s to fulfill their role of medium tactical airlift in Australia and overseas.

Just like the Chinook, the Hercules is one of the great aircraft designs of the post-war era, adaptable to a multitude of roles and built in numerous variants and subvariants. It has been in continuous production since the mid 1950s, with over 2500 having been built by 2015, the aircraft serves sixty-seven nations.

Prior to the Hercules, the RAAF relied primarily on the Douglas C-47 Dakota for transport tasks after World War II.  With the introduction of the C-130A, the RAAF had nearly four times the payload, twice the speed and range and three times the troop carrying capacity of the Dakota. The Hercules was a revolution in military transport capability which Australia embraced as the first export customer for Lockheed.

Twelve C-130As were delivered between December 1958 and March 1959 to Number 36 Squadron in Richmond, New South Wales. They were quickly employed by the squadron and by 1965 there was a demand for more. The Vietnam War and commitments in Southeast Asia as well as at home, demanded more RAAF transport capability. So twelve C-130Es were ordered for number 37 Squadron in February 1965 with deliveries over the following two years. They played a strategic air transport role, including in Vietnam, along with 36 Squadron.

No. 36 Squadron’s C-130As began operations in Vietnam from mid-1964, primarily out of VungTau. Cargo transport and operations were also conducted to Phan Rang, Bien Hoa and Tan Son Nhut. In the first eighteen months of operation into Phan Rang, the base’s Air Movements Section handled over 907 tonnes of freight and 3600 passengers; between April and June 1967 a detachment of three No 36 Squadron C-l30As flew 2400 Australian soldiers from Darwin to Yung Tau and brought a similar number home; and a fortnightly courier service between Richmond and Bien Hoa was established in November 1965 and continued until 1972 carrying personnel, spares, equipment and medical supplies.The vast number of killed and wounded sailors, soldiers and airmen came home to Australia from Vietnam on RAAF Hercules.

By the end of 1976, No 36 Squadron had replaced it’s ‘A’ model Hercules with ‘H’ models. These new aircraft operated side­ by-side for more than two decades with No 37 Squadron’s C-130Es, undertaking a multitude of military and civilian support tasks without suffering a single major mishap.

The RAAF Hercules fleet has played a significant role in supporting civilian operations.

One of the most important of these operations was the evacuation of nearly 3700 people from Darwin in the three days following Cyclone Tracy, which hit the Northern Territory capital on Christmas Day 1974. Flights into Darwin delivered urgently needed medical and other supplies and twelve Hercules were made available on stand-by at Richmond.

There was also the Australian domestic airline pilots’ dispute from August 1989 and into 1990, that threw Australia’s commercial airline industry into chaos. The RAAF was directed by government to assist, and a number of Hercules from both squadrons provided some relief for Australian air travel. During the crisis the RAAF had logged 6524 flying hours ferrying 172287 passengers all over Australia, the vast majority in the Hercules. Despite the comparatively noisy and uncomfortable aircraft, many passengers regarded the flights as an exciting adventure!

In 1994, No 37 Squadron’s C- l 30Es were approaching three decades of service and an upgrade was needed. The Lockheed’s proposed C-130J  ‘Super Hercules’ with new engines and propellers, two-crew ‘glass’ cockpit and upgraded systems was the preferred choice. – Twelve of the stretched ‘30’ variant were ordered in December 1995.

The 30-variant had 4.57 extra meters in the fuselage, providing 38% more cabin volume than the standard C-130J. Due to development problems delivery of the new aircraft was almost two years late. They began arriving in September 1999 and into 2000. There were delays in bringing the C-130Js up to full operational capability due to them being delivered with an interim avionics and hardware suite. An upgraded but still interim standard was introduced in 2001 but it wasn’t until a year later that full mission capability was achieved.

No. 37 Squadron operated the C-130J and C-130E side-by-side during much of 2000 as the new model was gradually integrated into squadron operations, adopting the strategic transport role of its predecessors. The C-130Es were withdrawn from service during that year, the last official flight occurring on 14 November 2000.

In response to the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002, five C-130s, twelve crews and five aero-medical evacuation teams assisted with the evacuation effort. The aircraft transported urgently needed medical stores to Darwin, flew aero-medical shuttles between Bali and Darwin, and transported two ambulances to Bali. Seventy casualties were transported to Darwin, and thirty-nine then flown to southern cities to relieve the strain on Darwin Hospital.

On Boxing Day, 2004, there was a massive Tsunami which struck Sumatra, and four C-130s were assigned to Operation Sumatra Assist and deployed initially to Medan, Indonesia, and Butterworth, Malaysia. The aircraft supported airlifts from major ports such as Jakarta, Medan and Butterworth into Banda Aceh airport. The C-130s accounted for most of the air transport of 1200 tonnes of stores, evacuation of seventy aero-medical patients from Banda Aceh and the relocation of 2500 Indonesian military personnel.

By 2003, No 36 Squadron was maintaining a detachment of C-130Hs in the Middle East sharing the deployment with C-130Js of No 37 Squadron.

The RAAF’s Air Lift Group was worked to the limit due to Australia’s commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and elsewhere. Additional capacity was urgently needed, and the Australian Defence Force would charter aircraft such as the Antonov An-124, Ilyushin Il-76 and Boeing 747 to fill the gap. The ageing C-130H fleet was suffering serviceability and therefore availability issues. A replacement was needed and in March 2006 it was announced that four Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transports would be acquired for the RAAF and the first aircraft arrived in December that same year. The C-17 provided four times the carrying capacity of the C-130J.

No 36 Squadron relinquished its C-130Hs and they joined 37 Squadron’s C-130Js in a ‘super squadron’ based at Richmond. No 36 Squadron was then reformed at Amberley in Queensland to operate the C-17. The H model would serve for another six years and retire in 2012 after thirty-four years of service. The Middle East deployment had meanwhile become an all C-130J operation from 2008.

From 2014 No 37 Squadron’s C-130Js began to develop a more tactical role which included the ability to operate into unlit and unsealed runways in low ambient light conditions, night visual formation flying and an expanded airdrop capability.

Since then, No 37 Squadron has continued to support the Middle East deployment as well as responding to calls for humanitarian aid throughout the region. The C-130J fleet has now been operating for twenty five years. There is the possibility more C-130s will be ordered but there is also increased competition from several newer designs. Regardless of what aircraft might replace the Hercules,  it has been  the RAAF’s longest-serving aircraft type, an amazing achievement and an incredible aircraft design.