Chester Martin: When The Hercules Came To Tennessee

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 - by Chester Martin

PLEASE BE ADVISED that I was putting the finishing touches on this story when the recent fatal C-130 accident occurred at Savannah, Ga. That tragic event, however, does not in any way diminish my high opinion of the Hercules, as its reputation has long been established - and is likely to be sustained long into the future. My story, therefore, appears here "as written".

Yes, I remember clearly the Armed Forces Day in 1957 when the first C-130 "Hercules" aircraft were delivered to Sewart Air Force Base at Smyrna, Tennessee,  southeast of Nashville.

The roar of the Air Force's Century Series "Thunderbirds" filled the air, and I had the best seat in the house for the entire show - as  an air traffic controller on duty - to witness everything that was happening. 

The entire base had been informed of how a brand-new type of troop carrier (or cargo)  aircraft would be coming to Sewart - an aircraft that would soon be used to ferry paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to wherever in the world they might be needed. (Fort Campbell was only minutes away from Sewart AFB by air). Apparently the entire Nashville community had also been informed, so arrived in great number. Sewart AFB belonged to the 314th Troop Carrier Wing, and was only the second air base to acquire them, following Ardmore AFB in Oklahoma. C-130's would soon totally replace the C-123's and C-119's of earlier days. The Korean War was "over", and no one had even heard the name "Viet Nam" at that time. But the "Cold War" with Russia and its allies was at its height. The U.S. was trying to be prepared for anything that might happen next.

Punctually, the tower received a call-in from the first of two C-130's, coming directly from their place of manufacture in Marietta, Georgia. The flight was duly cleared for a straight-in approach to runway 32, using only a small fraction of the 6,000-foot runway (a runway later extended to 10,000 feet to accommodate the many jets that stopped at Sewart for re-fueling).  Then it made a right turn from the runway onto the concrete parking area, where it was met by a "follow me" vehicle and escorted to a choice parking spot a short distance away from Base Operations and the tower - an ideal viewing distance for the tower staff. (Its sister flight also soon landed and was treated more conventionally as it was not to be on display).

Next came some surprises for all the gathered viewers, as the plane's entire slanted back side (cargo gate) came open, and let down to the ground to form an unloading ramp. A full-size flatbed truck backed out onto the concrete parking area, loaded with two fully equipped general purpose (jeep) vehicles, ready for any action that might be required. For all the gathered witnesses that was a truly astounding sight...and a definite step forward in our nation's military capabilities. There was as yet no space program  which would later break old records and dwarf the events of that 1957 Armed Forces Day celebration, to make it appear lame by comparison. NASA's grand achievements lay a decade in the future, but the implications made that day - that over 100 fully equipped paratroopers could be delivered to almost any destination on earth in only a few hours - were most significant. And the C-130s' range was incredible, as we in the tower frequently were obliged to deliver clearance for "round-robin" flights to the pilots, taking them, "direct Memphis, direct Kansas City, direct Phoenix, direct San Antonio, direct New Orleans, direct Sewart AFB (home base)" - all in a single night's work, and unbelievable to normal people of 60 years ago!

Need for such a versatile aircraft had arisen during World War 2 when long runways were impossible on South Pacific islands - and later, in the mountainous regions of Korea. Need was for a powerful Carrier (or Cargo) airplane that could land and take off with heavy loads on short runways, so a new engine was developed which included the best of both the old reciprocating engines and the more modern jet engines. We called it a "prop-jet" back in the day, and I think that name still applies. (Jet engines used too much expensive fuel, so by combining it with the traditional cheaper-operating "gas" engines, the ideal mix was reached). First planning for today's C-130's were therefore begun in the year 1951 - while I was still in my Junior year at Kirkman Vocational High School, although I did not meet it until six years later on that Armed Forces Day in 1957.

First planned in Washington, DC, then developed on the West Coast, and eventually manufactured in Georgia, it became the workhorse of the US Air Force. Bigger planes have since been invented, for sure, but none so well designed for easy use by paratroopers. My own son-in-law has jumped from the C-130's while seeing active duty in Iraq. The plane has been modified many times so as to carry special radar devices, or to land on ice in polar regions, or desert sand.  Its special ability for working in tight spaces was so intriguing to us in the control tower, however, that we would request occasional "full performance takeoffs". Those were never a problem for the pilots who seemed to like doing them - and they could rack them up as "extra training". It was always a marvel to watch those huge planes roll forward for only 100 feet or so before shooting almost straight up into the "Wild Blue Yonder"!  Later modifications to the plane added "jet-assisted take-off" capabilities, greatly increasing their versatility even more.

And there have been a lot of them made, not just for military use in the US and friendly countries throughout the world, but also for civilian uses. One bright Sunday morning while stationed at Sewart AFB (pronounced, "SOO-art") I could see from the Control Tower that the entire aircraft parking area was full - a rarity - as most were out flying missions  most of the time. I counted well over 100 of them...their silver fuselages gleaming in the morning sun, with red and white and  blue markings. It was a beautiful sight to behold!  I have since read that their overall number has been in the thousands, having proved themselves so favorably in Vietnam (a war which came AFTER my tour of service!)

C-130's were safe enough that I felt totally secure when I rode aboard one in a "formation  flight" from Sewart AFB to Europe in 1958.  Having to work very closely with Base Operations, we tower operators knew the Base Ops people very well. One day I happened to ask a buddy of mine who worked there (in the building beneath the tower) if he knew of any flights to Europe - the place I wanted to visit most. YES was his answer - there was going to be a flight of four C-130's leaving in six weeks to go over - and six weeks would be enough time to make preparations and get leave orders cut! We left on a bright but very hot and humid June morning and landed in Bermuda after the first leg of the journey. Bermuda was delightfully cool and pleasant, with no trace of humidity! Next day's leg was into the Portuguese Azores islands, circling over extinct volcanos, and the last leg was into an American air base near the cities of Trier-Trarbach (or Bernkastel Kues) on the Mosel River in Germany.  The crew-chief, a really witty and helpful Master Sergeant aboard the flight, showed me how to get my V-8 from the in-flight lunch cold by stashing it in a space he knew on the cargo ramp, plus some other tricks of life aboard a C-130. At destination (his own base of operations) he drove me into Trier and gave me more tips on navigating alone through Germany...

In 1958 I had only been on two (civilian) flights in my life, so everything was new, and I learned about "formation" flights.  Being the only passenger on a four-plane flight, I was allowed to sit temporarily just inside the cockpit, where I could see out to the front and right.  It was fun to watch how the right wing of our plane and the left wing of the next plane seemed to get just five or six feet apart. The pilots seemed to be playing a mid-air game by appearing to slowly rise several feet above the next plane's wing and then suddenly come crashing down to the same level. Weird feeling - and a little bit scary! And I've wondered since whether such was on an "approved" list of things to do while flying!

Anyway, I remain an admirer of the great C-130. We heard them at all hours of the day and night from our barracks several blocks from the flight-line at Sewart - so much so that I need not glance upward to know it's a C-130 overhead. The U,S, has benefitted greatly by its inclusion in our arsenal of weapons for over 60 years. Whether it's Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, or Independence Day, we should all be proud of those who have been associated with this truly remarkable aircraft.  Aptly called the "Hercules", C-130's remain one of the most reliable and powerful military work-horses ever.


* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.

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