Could the Air Force’s 1950s-era C-130 cargo plane fly missions for close to 100 years? If not 100, how about eighty? At least eighty might be realistic given a recent series of upgrades to the existing C-130H planes, now converted into newer, high-tech C-130Js slated to arrive at a number of chosen Air Force locations this year.
Air Force and Navy bases in Kentucky, West Virginia and Texas will begin receiving eight C-130Js this year; a fourth Air Force location will receive the aircraft at a yet-to-be-determined time, according to an Air Force report.
“Compared to older C-130s, the “J” model climbs faster and higher, flies farther at a higher cruise speed, and takes off and lands in a shorter distance,” the Air Force report says.
The C-130J aircraft incorporate a wide sphere of upgrades and adjustments, including a new two-pilot flight station, digital avionics, color multi-functional liquid crystal and head-up displays, inertial navigation technology and GPS. The airframes themselves are also a key focal point of the effort, Air Force developers explain, which includes replacing and reinforcing the “center wingbox” of the aircraft where the wings mount to the fuselage.
“The aircraft also features fully integrated defensive systems, low-power color radar, digital moving map display, new turboprop engines with six-bladed all-composite propellers and a digital autopilot. The C-130J also includes improved fuel, environmental and ice-protection and an enhanced cargo-handling system,” the Air Force essay writes.
The upgrades have also included adding new 8.33 radios for communication enhancements along with new cockpit voice and digital data recorders. C-130s will also receive new collision-avoidance technology, a technology which relies upon advanced algorithms to identify dangerous terrain or other obstacles and, if needed, re-direct the aircraft should the pilot be incapacitated.
As a propeller-driven aircraft, the C-130s are able to fly at low altitudes, land in more rugged conditions and withstand harsh weather such as obscurants. The propellers make the aircraft’s engines less susceptible to debris flying in and causing operational problems for the engines. An Air Force C-17, by contrast, needs to operate in more defined conditions, such as areas with longer, separated landing strips or runways. Flying debris or uneven terrain could present complications for C-17 engines, whereas the C-130 is specifically designed for low-altitude, high risk combat zones with uneven terrain—scenarios requiring both durability and maneuverability. In fact, in so-called “hot” or active combat zones, C-130s often airdrop weapons, supplies and even troops when called upon by Commanders.
Acceleration improvements such as this naturally bring tactical advantages as well; more maneuverable aircraft better able to handle and accelerate are less vulnerable to enemy ground missile attacks. These tactical and technical dynamics are part of why the C-130 upgrades incorporate propeller enhancements by replacing a hydromechanical propellor control system with an Electronic Propeller Control System (EPCS).
“EPCS improves safety by accelerating response time when throttles are rapidly advanced; an issue in previous mishaps. The legacy propeller control system uses 1950’s technology and is a significant maintenance cost driver,” a 2015 National Guard Association “C-130 Propulsion Upgrade” paper for Congress states.
EPCS maker Hamilton Sundstrand says the new kits “replace 54H60 propeller mechanical controls with a system based on digital computer software, offering improved reliability, and more precise performance.”
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.