I know many of you are used to reading fancy business class reviews on the newest aircraft with well-known airlines all over the world. While those are all well and good (feel free to send me anytime) I felt it was important to share the experience of an aircraft that has carried millions of people all over the world for more than 40 years.
This aircraft caters to an elite type of passenger that is so special you can’t even buy your way on. No, you have to work long and hard, and give up a lot, to get a seat on this amazing plane. You can’t find this type of service on any other airline in the world. If you want to talk about accommodations? Let’s just say I guarantee you won’t find this type of comfort anywhere else.
This trip was scheduled to take place from Tokyo, Japan to Mansfield, Ohio, and if that seems like a strange city pair, you would be right. But, being an AvGeek is all about special planes and special events. In this case, the special plane was a C-130H Hercules, and the special event was its last flight in the active duty Air Force before being delivered to the National Guard.
That’s right, after 43 years of service all over the world, this beauty was moving on to a new life back in the United States, where it will continue to serve in new ways. As you will see below, a 43-year-old airplane provides for a very unique and memorable experience.
For those of you that know a little about the C-130, you have already questioned its ability to travel all the way from Japan to the U.S. in one shot, and you would once again be right. You see, when you travel on the mighty Hercules, you really get to see the world. This trip included scheduled stops at the exotic Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii, and San Francisco before being delivered to the highly-sought-after destination of Mansfield, OH.
BONUS: C-130 Low-Level Flying Video at Exercise Cope North via AviationGuy
As you would expect for an international flight, I arrived at the airfield a little over two hours before departure, though that time was not spent getting boarding passes, checking bags, or going through security, but rather mission planning. One of the many benefits of my traveling on the C-130 is that I get to work the whole time. Not to worry, most of the work was done the day before, so only a few simple updates were required.
As a C-130 navigator, the work that I do depends heavily on the type of mission that we are flying. On the best days, that includes navigating the aircraft through a low-level environment with the objective of air dropping cargo or people to a drop zone. We train for this with multiple types of cargo and scenarios so that when we are called upon to do this for real, we will be prepared to drop whatever we are asked to in a safe and effective manner.
For this mission, much of the work was done beforehand in the preparation for the flight. This involved preparing charts and fuel logs that would be used to monitor our progress and ensure we get to our destination safely. In the plane, I am responsible for monitoring our computer and ensuring that everything is input correctly. I also maintain situational awareness on our position and fuel state, ensuring that all navigational systems are working properly (and that we don’t run out of gas; that’s very important.)
Once we were ready to depart, I got to perform one of my favorite parts of any flight: walking out to the airplane. All those fancy trips in business class don’t let you walk along the flight line to your plane, but I get to do that every single time. On the good days, that means getting an up close view of other planes taking off and landing, but as we were departing in the evening, it was pretty quiet on the field.
Fast forward through the pre-flight, and we departed right around sunset with an amazing view of Mt. Fuji out the window. It truly is one of the most majestic sites I have ever seen, and it did not disappoint on this occasion either.
As I mentioned before, traveling on a 43-year-old aircraft is always an adventure, and this old girl was not going to just go quietly into the night. About 45 minutes after takeoff, she decided she didn’t want to leave Japan yet and one of the engines started to act funny. So back home we went to have maintenance take a look at it.
When you travel on the C-130 you need to have a very flexible schedule, as she only goes when she wants to. After two days of maintenance, and a routing change (Anchorage AK, Great Falls MT, Mansfield OH), we were finally ready to go again.
The first leg from Tokyo to Anchorage pretty much reached the limit of her range and the only reason we were able to make it without a fuel stop was thanks to tailwinds of around 100 knots for a few hours. With an empty cargo compartment, we were also able to climb to FL270, which is not a common feat in the mighty Herc. What this long ten-hour leg allowed for, though, was the use of the many fine amenities on board.
BONUS: Operation Christmas Drop Video: Low Altitude Airdrops to the Islands of Micronesia via AviationGuy
The in-flight entertainment options on the C-130 are limitless. You can watch any movie or TV show that you could ever want. You can even play video games. The only catch is that you have to bring it yourself. The cool thing is that you can. While it did not occur on this flight, I have seen full TVs and DVD players brought on board for the passengers’ viewing pleasure. More common is the use of small devices like laptops and e-readers for personal use.
Something that you will never see on a commercial airline are the available outdoor activities. On this occasion I opted for a little game of Frisbee in the cargo compartment, but you could just as easily throw a football or baseball, if you so desired.
As I mentioned previously, this was an overnight flight, so for those who are more inclined to sleep, the resting options are actually quite nice. But, once again, for the really nice options, you must bring for yourself. While the ubiquitous red seats that you see on every military cargo aircraft have provided for many a fine rest on these long flights, I am personally partial to stringing up a hammock and resting in more comfort. The gentle swaying of the aircraft helps you to sleep like a baby. For the lucky few (two) that get seats in the front of the plane, there actually are fully lie-flat bunks available for your resting pleasure.
When it comes to food options, you are once again only limited by your imagination, and your willingness to bring it yourself. Now you may think that would lead to less than desirable dining, and the vast majority of the time you would be right. However, I have been able to enjoy artisan flat bread pizzas, lemon pepper chicken, and roast beef. Not to mention everyone’s favorite; warm chocolate chip cookies. It is amazing the delicious things you can make in a simple little oven.
One of the great perks of flying longer legs are the spectacular sunrises, and this trip certainly did not disappoint. While flying so far north in the summer, the sun was only gone for about four hours — it didn’t make the sunrise any less stunning. It also worked out perfectly as we reached the Alaska mainland shortly after sunrise and were able to enjoy the stunning views for the last hour or two of our flight.
Our first stop in Anchorage would last for about 22 hours, courtesy of crew rest requirements and time changes. This allowed for not much more than some great sleep and a fine pizza at one of my favorite local places. It is actually an incredible benefit of traveling on the C-130 that we get to stop and see so many amazing places that most other aircraft simply fly over.
There was a lot of forecast turbulence on our way out of Anchorage, but with a little nifty flight planning, we were able to avoid almost all of it as we headed down the western edge of Alaska and Canada. That is the part of airline reviews that most people never take into account. They often complain about the turbulence without realizing how much time and effort pilots generally put into trying to avoid it. The reality is that sometimes it just can’t be avoided, especially when you are as altitude restricted as we are.
One of the best things about flying during the day, especially over the western part of Canada, is that you get to watch hour after hour of stunning wilderness pass below you. If you are lucky enough to fly on a Herc, you too can witness this spectacular sight, assuming you are seated next to one of the handful of windows on board, and don’t mind craning around behind your seat to look.
On the note of seating, there are no middle seats on the Herc — everyone has aisle access. I think that is something that everyone can rejoice about. However, there are also no armrests, and you generally are sitting directly across from someone else that you must share your legroom with, so you better become friends quickly.
Approaching our second stop, we were able to take advantage of another perk of not flying commercial. The weather was quite lovely, and we were anxious to see the Missouri River, so we arranged with the air traffic controller to fly out over the river to scout it out for later adventures. If you have not flown low-level over a beautifully scenic area, then you are missing out on one of the most amazing experiences available. We were not even very low, by our standards, but the world is a whole different place a few hundred feet above the ground at 200mph.
Once again the restrictions of crew rest, time zone differences, and required delivery times forced us to remain in majestic Great Falls, MT for nearly two full days. If you are not familiar with the area, it is well known for having some amazing trout fishing. Being good aircrew we were well aware of everything about the area we would be visiting and had come prepared.
While many would see these delays as major inconveniences, I cherish these opportunities to see more of the world. Millions of people fly over these less developed areas on a weekly basis never paying them any thought, or even worse, would be annoyed having to stop there. However, while the fishing proved to be mostly unfruitful, it was an amazing opportunity to unwind after what had been a bit of a stressful week. How many airlines can say that about anywhere that they have layovers?
The final leg of this journey would prove to be uneventful other than the event itself. Six days after we originally were scheduled to depart Japan, completely re-routing our trip, crossing the international dateline, flying for about 22 hours, playing Frisbee, going fishing, and enjoying every minute of it, we were able to deliver this beautiful girl to her new home. After 43 years of service she was not being put out to pasture, but rather, starting a new chapter in her life.
While I make light of the less than luxurious accommodations of the mighty C-130 Hercules, she is a plane, like no other. For those who have had the opportunity to enjoy her comforts, there truly is no other experience that compares. Just like flying business class, I realize this is not an opportunity that the vast majority of people will ever have the chance to experience, but that just makes it all the more sweet.
This plane moving to the National Guard is part of the Air Force transition to the C-130J on active duty. While the C-130J will be the only variant on active duty later this year, this plane will continue to serve as it has for 43 years, only with new owners. That means she will continue to carry people and cargo all over the world, and in some cases those people and cargo will get dropped out of the back. Definitely won’t ever see that on a commercial airline. The C-130 has been in service for over 60 years, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. So while it is sad to say goodbye to an old friend, it is comforting to know she will continue to fly.
For those of you not familiar with the differences in the variants, one of the cost advantages of the newer J-model is that it removes two crew members; the navigator and engineer. As the last C-130 navigators on active duty, the transfer of these planes means a transfer for all of us to new areas. Many will retrain onto new aircraft, and others who are closer to the end of their careers will simply fly a desk for the remainder of their time. As for me, I only truly have a heart for one plane, my beautiful old Herc. So I too will be transferring to the National Guard so that I can keep doing what I love. It really has become such a part of me that I don’t have the heart to do anything else.