The Marine Corps Just Said Goodbye To Its Last Legacy C-130 Hercules Transport Plane

The Marines have now completed the transition to the advanced KC-130J model.

Aircraft 105 KC-130T
NAVAIR/SSgt John Bryant

Modernization of the U.S. Marine Corps aerial refueler and transport fleet has reached a milestone with the retirement of the service’s last ‘legacy’ Hercules, a KC-130T. The Marines flew the ‘legacy’ Hercules as their primary multi-mission transport for six decades but, with this latest move, have now standardized on the new-generation KC-130J.

The last of the Marine KC-130Ts, aircraft 105, had been in service with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452 (VMGR-452), the “Yankees,” a Marine Corps Reserve unit. It was handed over to the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 55 (VR-55) on April 14 in a ceremony. The event was announced yesterday by Naval Air Systems Command and the Navy will continue to operate the type.

U.S. MARINE CORPS/CPL. R. LOGAN KYLE

A KC-130T from VMGR-234 arrives at Mihail Kogalniceanu Airfield, Romania, as part of an Air Combat Element of a Security Cooperation Marine Air-Ground Task Force deployed to Eastern Europe.

The KC-130T variant, a derivative of the Air Force’s C-130H, had originally been introduced to Marine Corps service in the early 1980s; the C-130T variant also found fame as the celebrated “Fat Albert” used as a support asset by the Navy Blue Angels demonstration team until its retirement in 2019. During their Marine careers, these aircraft were operated exclusively by reserve squadrons, such as VMGR-452, based at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York. The plan had already been for this squadron to give up its last KC-130T in Fiscal Year 2021, once it had received sufficient numbers of the new KC-130J model.

Among the very last taskings for the KC-130Ts of VMGR-452 was participation in the Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course 2-21, at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, last March. This is a seven-week training event focused on advanced tactical training. “I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to experience her legacy and proud to see her go out while she’s still at the top of her game,” said Major Gary Windt, a VGMR-452 aircraft commander, of the KC-130T. “In my experience, her reliability, especially while operating autonomously, is unmatched.”

When the latest Marine Corps Aviation Plan was released in 2019, the service still had 12 KC-130Ts assigned to VMGR-452, as well as three active-duty squadrons with 15 KC-130Js each, and one reserve squadron with seven KC-130Js. For the future, the plan defined a primary mission aircraft inventory (PMAI) of 15 KC-130Js for each active-component VMGR, and for the reserve squadrons.

The Marines used the KC-130T to its fullest potential, flying missions that included combat assault transport, air delivery, refueling of fixed-wing, rotary-wing, and tiltrotor aircraft, ground refueling, battlefield illumination, and operations from expeditionary airfields. VMGR-452, in particular, took its KC-130Ts to war in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom.

The KC-130T was typically flown by a crew of six: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, and a Tactical Systems Operator, or TSO, on the flight deck, and a flight mechanic and a loadmaster in the cargo compartment. In the improved J-model, the flight engineer, TSO, and flight mechanic roles have all been removed in favor of far more automation in the all-glass cockpit, which is usually occupied by the pilot, co-pilot, and senior crew master.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Lakisha A. Croley

A flight engineer and pilot from VMGR-452 conduct pre-flight inspections in a KC-130T before heading out for an in-flight refueling mission during the Northern Edge exercise over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex.

Another major difference compared to the KC-130J was the powerplant, with the KC-130T originally being fitted with Allison T56-A-16 turboprops driving four-bladed metal propellers. The KC-130J comes with more powerful Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 turboprops and six-bladed composite propellers.

Jerry Gunner/Wikimedia Commons

A KC-130T of VMGR-452 landing at Naval Air Station North Island, California, in 2009.

Marine KC-130Ts actually came in two distinct versions, differentiated by fuselage length. As well as 24 baseline KC-130Ts, there were two KC-130T-30 models with a 15-foot fuselage ‘stretch.’ This increased troop carriage from 92 to 138, or an equivalent load of cargo. The two Dash 30s were operated by VMGR-452 before their refueling equipment was removed and they were transferred to the Navy in the early 2010s.

While the Marines began to receive the much-improved KC-130J in 2001, the KC-130T remained a prized asset and work continued to upgrade the aircraft. Cockpits compatible with night-vision goggles were added in the mid-1990s. Since then, the Marine fleet has been upgraded with an electronic propeller control system, engine instrument display system, TACAN, and radar systems modifications.

U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Jodson B. Graves, 2d MAW Combat Camera

Marines load an Air Traffic Control Navigation and Interrogation System into a KC-130T during a Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) at Yuma, Arizona, in 2015.

Sadly, however, a shadow is cast over the KC-130T’s final years of Marine Corps service by the loss of callsign Yanky 72, a VMGR-452 aircraft that crashed on July 10, 2017, while transporting special operations forces from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, to Naval Air Facility El Centro, California. The aircraft broke apart in mid-air and came down over Mississippi, killing the seven special operators as well as nine aircrew.

In the wake of the crash, all Marine Corps and Navy KC-130Ts were grounded before an investigation pointed to faulty maintenance practices that meant a corroded propeller blade was not properly repaired in 2011. In the mishap six years later, that propeller subsequently failed and impacted the fuselage, and another engine, with catastrophic results.

VMGR-452 began its transition to the KC-130J when it received its first example in May 2020, already operated by one reserve and three active-duty Marine squadrons. As well as its improved performance, the J-model also provides the Marines with additional functions beyond what was possible with the KC-130T. These include close air support and reconnaissance with the Harvest HAWK system, a roll-on/roll-off armament package, as well as airborne command and control, and electronic warfare. 

U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Jonathan Lane

The first KC-130J for VMGR-452 arrives at Stewart Air National Guard Base, Newburgh, New York, on May 28, 2020.

The KC-130J is also being used increasingly with the M142 High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) as part of ‘shoot and scoot’ precision rocket artillery ‘raids,’ where a Hercules lands at a forward location and offloads the launcher vehicle, which then carries out a fire support mission.

Last August, meanwhile, a VMGR-452 KC-130T conducted its first aerial refueling mission with an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor as part of tests with its new eight-bladed NP2000 composite propellers — the same type that has also been retrofitted to some Air National Guard C-130Hs. However, the propeller upgrade will benefit the Navy, rather than the Marines, as it continues to operate the KC-130T. The first NP2000-configured KC-130T was then transferred to the Navy’s VR-62 squadron.

However, the Navy is already looking to replace the KC-130T as it, too, standardizes on the KC-130J. Vice Admiral John Mustin, chief of Navy Reserve, recently told the House Appropriations Committee that replacing the legacy Hercules with the J-model was “the Navy Reserve’s top equipment priority.” Currently, the Navy operates a fleet of around 30 KC-130T and C-130T aircraft, the latter with the aerial refueling capability deleted. If these C/KC-130T aircraft eventually become available on the secondary market, they could be very attractive for U.S. allies and partners, especially those already operating C-130Hs.

U.S. Navy

A KC-130T equipped with NP2000 propellers refuels an MV-22 Osprey during a test flight on August 24 last year.

In March this year, the Marines received their 60th KC-130J, which was delivered to VMGR-252 at MCAS Cherry Point. This leaves another 26 aircraft to be delivered over the next five years, completing an order book for 86 examples. The latest KC-130J deliveries also feature additional improvements, including enhanced navigation systems, an upgraded cockpit, and the Department of the Navy Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasure (DON LAIRCM) self-protection system.

The era of the ‘legacy’ Hercules with the Marine Corps may now be over, but the future of the KC-130J with the service appears to be brighter than ever.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com