A C-130H Hercules aircraft assigned to the 757th Airlift Squadron sits on the flightline, July 22, 2020, at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, Ohio. Unlike newer C-130Js, C-130Hs have four metal propellers on each engine. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Christina Russo.
The Air Force has flown C-130s for almost as long as the Air Force has flown. The service put the first C-130 Hercules into service in 1956, just nine years after the Air Force broke away from the Army as its own branch of the armed services.
In the Air Force inventory, only the B-52 — which arrived a year earlier — has been flying longer.
But about 100 of the transport planes are now grounded after structural weaknesses were found in the propellers on an older version, the C-130H. Most Air Force C-130s are now C-130J models, which began coming online in the 1990s. But H-models — the design of which dates to the mid-1970s — make up about one-fifth of the Air Force's Hercules fleet.
A C-130H nicknamed "Stickers," assigned to the 189th Airlift Wing, on Oct. 27, 2018, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. US Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Jessica Condit.
According to an Air Force release, 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.
The grounding was originally reported on the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page.
A formal "technical order" was issued through the Air Force's maintenance community that all C-130Hs with a particular model of metal blades — called the 54H60 — were to be grounded after cracks were found in several during inspections.
Blade 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-130, flying as Yanky 72, disintegrated midflight at 20,000 feet over Mississippi in 2017 when a cracked metal blade came off during flight. The blade sliced through the aircraft, shattering it into three large pieces and killing all 16 on board.
An upgraded C-130H from the 133rd Airlift Wing is parked on the flight line in St. Paul, Minnesota, May 11, 2022. The eight-bladed propellers replaced the four-bladed propellers on older models. US Air National Guard photo by Amy M. Lovgren.
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 sheered 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.
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