That Time They Landed a C-130 Hercules Aboard an Aircraft Carrier

I’ve heard tale of a large aircraft of the non-naval variety once landing aboard a boat. Specifically, a C-130 Hercules landing aboard and taking off from an aircraft carrier. Well, it’s not a myth because it actually happened; back in the ancient days of 1963.

By the late-1950s, U.S. Navy carriers were spending more and more time at sea, with twin-engined cargo aircraft serving as Carrier On-Board Delivery (COD) planes.  The then current plane was the Grumman C-1 Trader which had a limited capacity of 9 passengers or 3,500 pounds of cargo and a limited range. In 1963, it was decided to conduct a feasibility study to see if something larger, with more carrying capacity, and a longer range could act as a COD plane (McNally, 2012).  This was back in the days when the Navy was still willing to attempt ludicrous stunts.

A KC-130F was loaned from the Marine Corps, painted over with navy markings, had an upgraded anti-skid braking system and stiffened nose gear installed, refueling pods removed, and had “LOOK MA, NO HOOK” written on the side (Powell, 2017, p. 146).  As the name would suggest, it had no tailhook.

Tailhooks? We don’t need no stinkin’ tailhooks!

Since no rational C-130 aircrew wanted to try this stunt out, the honor of this aeronautical insanity when to two navy fighter jocks who probably didn’t even know what a propeller was.  Lt. James Flatley III, a former LSO, became the pilot. His co-pilot was LCDR W. Stovall, and his flight engineers were ADR1 Ed Brennan and Al Sieve from NAS Patuxent River (Powell, 2017, p. 146).

Before going to sea, our brave crew had a four-hour familiarization flight and simulated 100 test landings at NAS Patuxent River with Lockheed test pilot Ted Limmer.  “While the normal approach speed for a Hercules is 115 to 120 knots, a determination was made to fly the carrier approaches at five to six knots above stall speed for the planned landing gross weight,” writes Jeff Rhodes (2014).  Another concern of Flatley’s was that the Hercules has a design limit sink rate of 11 ft/s. Carrier pilots are trained for aircraft with sink rates of 15-20 ft/s. However, Flatley noted the ease of handling the Hercules and had little problem flying the 3.5-degree glide slope during test runs (Rhodes, 2014).

In case you don’t believe me…here’s some actual footage

On October 30, 1963, Flatley and his crew flew their Hercules 500 miles off the coast of Boston to the awaiting USS Forrestal.  Flatley recalls that the weather conditions for that day were squally, with 40 knot winds gusting to 60 knots and large swells with the deck of the carrier heaving 20 feet (Rhodes, 2014).  Now, you may notice that a C-130 is quite a large aircraft. Indeed, the 132ft wingspan meant that there was only 15 feet of clearance from the carrier’s island. The Hercules crew first did touch-and-goes on the 682-foot-long angled deck and then down the 1,017-foot-long axial deck, where the actual landings would be made.  The 30 October trip had 42 approaches for 19 touch-and-gos due to the squalls and pitching deck. Forrestal kept 40 knots of wind over the deck during the trials (Powell, 2017, p. 147).

On 8 November, they got cleared for their first landing off the coast of Cape Cod.  A broad white dotted-line was painted down the axial deck of the Forrestal to aid the pilots.  Flatley said they made their first approach “at a gross weight of 80,000 pounds at 79 knots indicated, flying a standard shipboard 3.5 degree glide-slope.”  LCDR Osborne and LT Jerry Daugherty alternated LSO duties aboard the Forrestal. As the C-130 crossed the ramp at about 10 feet in the air, the LSO gave the cut signal and the crew went full reverse on all four engines.  On the initial landing, the plane stopped in 295 feet which was just short of the fourth, and final, arresting cable. The arresting cables were removed for worry that they would damage the tires since both pilots were practically standing on the brakes at touchdown (Powell, 2017, p. 147).  

Hold my beer

Brennan (as cited in Rhodes, 2014) noted, “We stopped so short it kind of startled me.  It was like landing on a normal runway, but that big metal island on the side of the ship just beyond the wingtip was a bit scary.”  While tractors normally move aircraft around the deck, Flatley says, “We simply backed up with reverse thrust to set up for takeoff. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the deck hands.”

The C-130 made four trips to the Forrestal on October 8 and November 8, 21, and 22 with a total of 10 touch-and-goes and 21 full-stop landings.  According to journalist Brendan McNally (2012):

In most instances the aircraft would touchdown about 150 feet from the end of the deck, roll for a little under 300 feet and then take off from the same position, using what was left of the deck, leaving a couple hundred feet to spare by the time they lifted off. The aircraft took off with loads of between 85,000 pounds to 121,000 pounds.

Since this Hercules was a tanker, to test the feasibility of using it as a COD plane, fuel was simply added to increase the weight.  It was at the maximum weight of 121,000 pounds that the Hercules set the record for the largest and heaviest aircraft to land aboard a carrier.  During that attempt, it used 745 feet for takeoff and 460 feet for landing (Rhodes, 2014).

When it was all said and done, Flatley and Stovall decided to go back to flying tactical aircraft.  In recognition of their lunacy, the crew received Air Medals with Flatley also being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Flatley credits flight engineers Brennan and Sieve, as well as LSOs Daugherty and Osborne as the men who did the “real work” of getting the plane down on the deck.  “It sounds a little cavalier for a test pilot, but, at that point, we were not required to learn the aircraft, just to learn to fly it,” said Flatley (as cited in Rhodes, 2014).

From the accumulated test data, the Navy concluded that with the C-130 Hercules, it would be possible to lift 25,000 pounds of cargo 2,500 miles and land it on a carrier.

For the record books, that C-130 was the largest and heaviest aircraft to land on the deck of a carrier, however, it was ultimately impractical for a number of reasons: 1) the entire flight deck had to be clear for the plane to land.  2) If the plane became unflyable, then it would have to be pushed overboard or the ship would have to pull into a port with a crane large enough to hoist the aircraft off. In any case, the Navy adopted the C-2 Greyhound the following year as the COD plane (Powell, 2017, p. 147).  While not quite as big as the C-130 Herc, it was larger and longer-ranged than the existing C-1 Trader

In case you’re wondering about the fate of that KC-130 (Bureau Number 149798), well, it went on to serve in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraqi Freedom until being retired in 2005 to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida (Rhodes, 2014)

McNally (2012) writes that the idea of landing C-130s onboard carriers didn’t quite end there.  It was resurrected during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980. Operation Credible Sport was to fly modified C-130s into the Tehran soccer stadium to load the rescued American hostages and then fly them to a carrier.  One of the aircraft was destroyed during a test flight and the operation was ultimately cancelled.

References:

McNally, B. (2012). C-130 Carrier Landing.  Defense Media Network. Retrieved from https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/c-130-carrier-landing/

Powell, R.R. (2017). Wave-off! A history of LSOs and shipboard landings. Forest Lake, MN: Specialty Press.

Rhodes, J. (2014). C-130 Carrier Landing Trials. Code One. Retrieved from http://www.codeonemagazine.com/c130_article.html?item_id=148

The Aviation Zone. (n.d.) C-130 Hercules Lands on U.S.S. Forrestal. Retrieved from http://www.theaviationzone.com/factsheets/c130_forrestal.asp

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