C-130 Aircraft Carrier Operations


While a healthy skepticism of Marines is always a wise precaution, your fellow shop workers are indeed correct, this time. Not only did the C-130 land on and take off from an aircraft carrier, but what is even more amazing is that the plane did so unassisted--without using arresting gear to reduce the landing roll or becoming airborne with the aid of the ship's catapult.

The astounding feats occurrred from the deck of the USS Forrestal in October 1963 using a Marine Corps KC-130F. The motivation for these tests, ordered by the Chief of Naval Operations, was to determine the feasibility of using the existing C-130 aircraft as a long-range carrier onboard delivery (COD) transport. At the time, the Navy was using the C-1 Trader for COD duties, but the plane was limited to a rather small payload and a 300 mile (480 km) range. When operating far out at sea, carriers were unable to receive desperately needed supplies without steaming closer in to shore. It was hoped that the larger, long-range C-130 would be able to address that deficiency.

KC-130F on the deck of the USS Forrestal
KC-130F on the deck of the USS Forrestal

And so it was, on 8 October, that the Navy received the KC-130F refueling tanker (BuNo 149798) on loan from the USMC. Prior to the tests, Lockheed had modified the plane by installing an anti-skid braking system, removing the underwing refueling pods, and adding a smaller nose gear orifice. The aircraft carried a crew of four: LT James Flatley as pilot, LCDR W. "Smokey" Stovall as copilot, ADR1 Ed Brennan as flight engineer, and Lockheed test pilot Ted Limmer. Another crewman participating in the tests was Al Sieve whose involvement went unrecognized until he recieved a medal in July 2004. Sieve was a chief petty officer who served as crew chief to ensure that cargo was properly loaded for safe operations from the carrier deck. Some sources also indicate that Sieve was a flight engineer who replaced Ed Brennan on certain test flights.

Initial flight testing began on 30 October when the C-130 made its first landing on the Forrestal into a 40-knot wind. Helping to guide the C-130 along the deck was a special dashed centerline, visible in the above image. Even with this line, however, the aircraft's wingtip cleared the carrier's island control tower by less than 15 ft (4.6 m).

Several views of the C-130 operating at sea
Several views of the C-130 operating at sea

Adding to the challenge of operating the large aircraft from a carrier deck was a relatively heavy sea state. In the words of Lockheed's chief engineer, Art Flock, who was aboard to observe the tests, "The sea was pretty big that day. I was up on the captain's bridge. I watched a man on the ship's bow as that bow must have gone up and down 30 feet." To ease the operations, the ship increased speed to provide more wind speed over the deck and reduce the unsteady rocking and heaving motions. "That airplane stopped right opposite the captain's bridge," recalled Flock. "There was cheering and laughing. There on the side of the fuselage, a big sign had been painted on that said LOOK MA, NO HOOK."

Views of the KC-130 operating from the Forrestal
Views of the KC-130 operating from the Forrestal

Perhaps one of the most amazing accomplishments of the plane was described by Lockheed pilot Ted Limmer, who had qualified test pilot LT Flatley to fly the C-130. "The last landing I participated in, we touched down about 150 feet from the end, stopped in 270 feet more and launched from that position, using what was left of the deck. We still had a couple hundred feet left when we lifted off. Admiral Brown was flabbergasted." LT Flatley was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the Navy for his participation in the test program. Stovall, Brennan, and Sieve each received Air Medals.

KC-130 taking off from the Forrestal
KC-130 taking off from the Forrestal

All told, the flight tests included 29 touch-and-go landings, 21 unarrested full-stop landings, and 21 unassisted takeoffs at gross weights ranging from 85,000 lb (38,555 kg) to 121,000 lb (54,885 kg). At the lower weight, the aircraft managed to come to a complete stop in only 267 ft (81 m), which is little more than double the plane's wingspan. Even at maximum weight, the C-130 required only 745 ft (227 m) for takeoff and 460 ft (140 m) for landing. Landings were made shorter by reversing the propellers while the aircraft was still a few feet above the flight deck. Videos documenting the landing and takeoff attempts are available on-line.

Based on these tests, it was determined that the C-130 could carry 25,000 lb (11,340 kg) of cargo and personnel to a carrier at a range of 2,500 miles (4,020 km). However, the risks of operating such a large aircraft in the hectic day-to-day carrier environment were considered too great, and the idea of using the C-130 as a COD aicraft was abandoned. The C-130 has never been operated from a carrier since, and the much smaller C-2A Greyhound was later selected to fulfill the COD role.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 6 October 2002

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