A group of airmen tour an MC-130 Combat Talon II, assigned to Hurlburt Field, Florida, during a Midnight Marauders immersion at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, March 14, 2020. The Midnight Marauder program has visited multiple units in an effort for airmen to see different aspects of the overall mission of ASAB. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum.
Two older C-130s are back flying after the Air Force grounded over 100 of the aircraft in September.
Air Force officials discovered early last month that metal propellers used by most C-130Hs — an older version of the Air Force's workhorse tactical airlifter — were vulnerable to developing cracks. The metal blades, known as 54H60 propellers, are used on most of the older C-130Hs, which make up about one-quarter of the Air Force's C-130 fleet. The service's more common and modern C-130Js use carbon-fiber propellers and are not affected.
The grounded aircraft are mostly C-130H cargo planes, but they include several with specialized roles: eight MC-130H Combat Talon special operations aircraft, seven EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, and one TC-130H trainer.
Maj. Beau Downey, a spokesperson with Air Mobility Command, said the Air Force has "sufficient airlift to meet our global requirements" as the C-130Hs are inspected.
An AC-130U Spooky gunship tail number A0253 retires at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Sept. 11, 2018. Spooky A0253 was retired to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, known as the aircraft boneyard, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, after 23 years of service. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dennis Spain)
"Two aircraft have been returned to service," said Downey. "We are looking at multiple avenues for accelerating the fixes, but anticipate the process to safely inspect, and if necessary replace, the affected propellers will take some time."
The cracks in the propellers were noted by a technician during an inspection in September.
Propeller failure is a catastrophic danger for prop-driven aircraft like the C-130, particularly for those with metal blades like the 54H60. A Marine Corps KC-130T, flying as Yanky 72, disintegrated midflight at 20,000 feet over Mississippi in 2017 when a cracked metal blade came off during flight. The KC-130T is the Marine version of a C-130H, modified as a tanker. The blade sliced through the aircraft, shattering it into three large pieces and killing all 16 on board.
The Navy and Marines grounded their fleets of C-130s for more than a year following the accident until all props had been checked.
Newer C-130Js fly with propellers that have six and sometimes eight carbon-fiber blades, which in a mishap will shatter into mostly harmless pieces. The carbon-fiber blades allowed a Marine KC-130, flying as Raider 50, to survive a prop failure in 2020 over California that was similar to the fatal 2017 mishap.
In that flight, a midair collision with an F-35 sheared off nearly all the blades on both engines on the right side of a Marine KC-130J. As the carbon-fiber blades shattered into innumerable tiny pieces, those that hit the fuselage mostly bounced off or penetrated with just bullet-hole-sized damage, too small to imperil the whole plane, which landed safely.
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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