My two earliest memories are from 1985, when I was three years old – Dad taking the family to see A View To A Kill in Sydney, and a trip from RAAF Richmond to Williamtown on a 36SQN C130H for an air show. That aircraft’s serial? A97-007. James Bond played a big role in me growing up, but that’s content for another post.
Sitting on the red canvas sideseats, I remember a row of stretchers down the middle of the cargo bay of that C130H as we rode to the air show, which was being held to welcome the newly- delivered F/A18 Hornets. Most of the family rode in the back, poking at first aid mannequins lining the stretchers. Dad brought me up the the cockpit during the brief flight, where my brother was sitting on the benchseat with the CO’s daughter. I got lifted up to see outside of the window over the Captain’s shoulder. As impressed as I was with the view, it led to an assumption – this is how everybody gets around. I was a RAAF Brat, so naturally I thought flying around on military transports was something all families did.
The year 1985 was young in the H-model’s RAAF career. They’d arrived at Richmond in 1978 as a tactical airlift replacement for the C-130As at 36SQN. There wasn’t quite as much to tactical flying as there is today however – Vietnam was relatively recent in memory, where combat airlift was a mix of luck and good tactics. To emphasise the naivite, the new Hercs came in a semi-gloss camouflage, bright red lettering, with a light grey belly. When they banked at low level, ground spotters said the H-model lit up like a mirror. The plus-side? They were still quite easy on the eye.
After 1985, the business of H-model flying grew more serious. The glossy camouflage was traded in for a wraparound green/tan/olive that actually served to conceal the aircraft. Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) had been experimented with by 36SQN crews in 1982, but found their way on board more permanently in the early 1990s as the technology increased in fidelity. Electronic Warfare Self-Protection kits were installed on a select number of aircraft before rolling out on the remainder of the fleet.
The nature of their work grew more serious as the situation demanded it. They evacuated 450 people from a coup in Cambodia in 1997, the spectre of violence grown notorious under the Khmer Rouge threatening to rear its head. The last evacuation mission to Cambodia was flown by crews on NVGs, through rain so thick, the Navigator had to plot the course right up to the runway from his radar. The evacuees at the terminal had no idea an aircraft had landed until a green Fat Albert taxiied to the terminal in the driving rain.
Two years later, they delivered troops to East Timor. In 2002, Afghanistan. In early 2003, 25 years after they were delivered for tactical airlift, they flew their toughest test by going over the wire in Iraq, and sustained airlift in to that country. As is so often the case for many for aircraft, its greatest achievement came so late in to its career. And the crews excelled at it.
On 24 November 2012, aircraft A97-007 was parked outside a hangar for a Saturday evening as 550 past and present members of the C130H community reunited to farewell the fleet. While -007 had flown a lot of miles and seen a lot of airfields in its life, it was a scene remarkably remeniscent to a Saturday evening in 1985, when the same aircraft dropped a little boy and his family off at Richmond after they had been to an air show. That aircraft and its kin had kept creating memories. The boy’s first experience of a H-model dirt airstrip landing was his dad bringing a 1/48th scale model in to the frontyard, positively dwarfing the matchbox flightline the boy had gathered there. When the family moved across town (and closer to the runway), a H-model roared o’er head on a departure – a ‘welcome to your new home’ greeting that was followed by many more.
Eventually, -007 became one of the last remaining active C130Hs, but some of its sisters flew on until the ultimate retirement on November 30. Over Sydney Harbour and the Blue Mountains. Over Canberra, Wagga, and Tamworth, and a host of airfields which prepared them for war. And finally, over Richmond, where their story began 34 years earlier. The boy who grew up listening to the roar of four Alison T56 turboprops heard them one last time, as a man. He, like so many others around the world, had learned to remember and welcome that sound. But on November 30, their song had finished.
Farewell, H-models. I’ll remember you.