The RAAF was the first foreign Air Force to purchase the C-130 Hercules as a replacement for the venerable C-47 Dakota or DC-3. The initial buy was 12 C-130 ‘A’ models and they were allocated to 36 Squadron based at RAAF Base Richmond New South Wales west of Sydney. Having failed my initial attempt at flying fighters I elected to go to 36 Squadron to learn to fly the [then] largest aircraft in the RAAF. The course lasted three months with only two students, myself and Greg Clynick who became a good mate. In itself the aircraft was not too difficult to fly although both Greg and I really bounced the thing on our first attempts at landing. I do believe that my bounce was quite a bit higher than Greg’s. The reason I know this is that we would usually go together on the same aircraft with one instructor and sit behind on the navigator’s chair while the other flew. I remember being alarmed at Greg’s bounce thinking how tough the aircraft was to withstand such an impact. Then it came to my turn, well holy smoke what an impact, the aircraft bounced so high that the instructor flew the aircraft away from the top of the bounce and we continued on with more practice that improved markedly, fortunately.
The main difficulty with learning about the ‘Herc’ was all the different capabilities that it had. Every conceivable configuration from medevac to troop carry and airdrop was contained within the aircraft. All the seats, staunchens, litters, tie down devices etc were all stowed somewhere in the aircraft. The flexibility of tasking was amazing and you had to become proficient at all of the aircraft’s capabilities as you progressed through the training scheme. After the initial conversion to type you became a category ‘D’ co-pilot. It would take you about three months to become a category ‘C’ co-pilot before progressing to category’B’ which took about 12 to 18 months. Category ‘B’ copilot basically meant that you were in line for captaincy when a captain slot became available. This usually took between two and three years depending on many factors including your own personal ability. Generally though three years was the normal time to captaincy. For Greg and myself good fortune shone upon us and after barely two years the squadron suffered an exodus of captains to airlines, ground jobs and various other postings. So it was that the two of us became C-130 Hercules Captains in the shortest time since the Hercules had entered service. It might have been an even shorter time had the squadron not picked up the newest model of the aircraft the C-130 ‘H’ model. I will say that Greg received his captaincy first after I had a slight accident on a skate board in the U.S. I had bought a skate board for my son and I was trying it out around the path surrounding the motel we were staying at, when the Commanding Officer exited his ground floor room. I bowled him over in a quite heavy impact that dazed us both. He was, understandably, very upset and subsequently informed me that I would not become a captain while my buttocks pointed to the ground or words to that effect. The pressures of diminishing numbers of captains however, prevailed and after several check flights with the Commanding Officer I achieved the un-achievable and earned my captaincy. So at the ripe old age of 25 years I was put in charge of this massive aircraft.
Once you achieve your category ‘C’ captaincy you are then required to qualify in all the roles that the aircraft is capable of namely, para troop drop static line, para troop drop free fall, airdrop container, airdrop vehicle/large load, medevac, search and rescue, remote field operations, and special operations. This then is an ongoing process and most captains don’t necessarily achieve all these qualifications in one tour with the squadron. I did achieve all of the qualifications as I remained with the squadron for five years straight.
Let’s look at the aircraft performance itself in general terms, the ‘A’ model had a maximum all up weight of 124,200 pounds and the ‘H’ model 155,000 pounds. It would climb out at around 200 knots and cruised at anywhere from 22,000 to 30,000 feet depending on the load it was carrying. Cruise speed for the ‘A’ model was about 280 knots and the ‘H’ model 323 knots. It should be noted that the ‘H’ model was initially permitted to set a maximum continuous power of 1010 degrees turbine inlet temperature but later on this was reduced to lengthen engine life and the cruise speed was reduced accordingly. The aircraft was capable of fairly short take off and landing distances at lighter weights with approach speeds around 120 knots. It was quite amazing to take off at maximum all up weight and climb quite well to cruise altitude. Range was about 2000 nautical miles, as an example Richmond to Darwin is 1672 nautical miles which gives you an idea of distances that could be covered. If necessary it could keep flying on two engines at medium weights and pretty much fly on three engines at just about full weight. Most of the time we didn’t operate at maximum weight as a lot of freight was more bulky than heavy.
The aircraft had a crew of five, pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and loadmaster, with extra crewing at times for crew members that needed their annual route checks for proficiency. I thoroughly enjoyed the multi-crew environment and I made many good friends among the flight engineers and loadmasters who, although I was the aircraft captain and supposedly in charge, gave me expert fatherly advice on all matters concerned in the operation of the aircraft.
Operating the aircraft was totally hands on and all tasks were done manually with no computers to assist. Flight plans were done on paper by the navigator, checked by the captain, take off and landing data was calculated from a performance table by the co-pilot once the loadmaster gave him the aircraft weight, and checked by the captain. The loading of the freight and passengers was initially conducted by air movements staff in consultation with the loadmaster who then checked the distribution of the load to ensure that the centre of gravity limits for the aircraft were not compromised. He did this using a special slide rule, this was then checked by the captain before acceptance of the aircraft from air movements staff. The aircraft itself was completely checked by the flight engineer, even walking over the top of the aircraft (without a safety harness) on special walkways painted all over the top of the aircraft. He then checked all the technical aspects of the aircraft’s servicing history to ensure that there were no discrepancies. The co-pilot did a back up walk around check of the aircraft as well. All of this was a well orchestrated procedure that was completed before every flight.
Arriving at a destination also required a great deal of organisation with duties handed out by the captain to ensure an efficient turn around of the aircraft. Simple things like crew transport, accommodation, flight planning arrangements, fuel loads, likely loads and cargo compartment configuration requirements all had to be dealt with entirely by the crew. The way the aircraft were scheduled by the air movements coordination centre meant that many tasks were arranged to get the most out of the aircraft and crew. The crew duty requirements meant that a 15 hour day could be programmed, so early starts and late finishes were common place. People would ask me about some of the exotic places that I had visited but for the most part we arrived after dark and all we saw was a Motel, restaurant and maybe a Pub for a couple of beers. If we stayed on a RAAF Base (the preferred option for the bean counters) we were usually too tired to venture into town so a meal and a beer or two in the mess was the norm. The most sort after trips were to RAAF Base Butterworth Malaysia where we got to have a day off before returning back to Australia. As a junior squadron member it was rare to be scheduled for one of these as the squadron executives would ensure that they had priority for the scheduling of these trips. Naturally this affected morale somewhat.
There were many adventures during my time at 36 Squadron, the first I remember was when I was still a copilot. I had been elevated to a member of the maintenance test crews where we would take the aircraft up and test the engines after they had been changed. We would shut the engine down and ensure that the propeller would ‘feather’ and not move too much up to a certain speed. On this occasion we shut down the number four engine (far right) and while we were increasing speed the Loadmaster reported a significant fuel leak coming from the engine. This meant we had to pull the fire handle which shutoff fuel to the engine. No big deal we had experienced similar problems before. We proceeded to declare the required standard ‘casual’ emergency and plan our return to Richmond. During the procedural requirements of the shut down and subsequent necessary actions the Flight Engineer suddenly piped up with the call of “FIRE NUMBER THREE ENGINE!” (the inboard engine right side). Both pilots looked at him in disbelief until we saw the engine fire light flashing above our heads. This is a serious and rare emergency and although we practised the event in the simulator not many had actually done a two engine approach in the real aircraft. So from a casual “hohum” declaration of an emergency we quickly elevated our situation to a Mayday with quite a bit of urgency in my voice on the radio to air traffic control. So the number three engine was also shutdown and the fire handle pulled, the Loadmaster reported no sign of fire so we proceeded to carry out the formalities for a two engine approach but reserving the fire bottles (extinguishers in the engine) in case an actual fire was observed. Fortunately the aircraft was empty and very light so control was reasonable and the Captain did a marvelous job of recovering the aircraft safely.
Special operations were a real challenge and the training work up for this qualification was quite harrowing. All missions were done at night at low level. We started flying them at 1000 feet but soon realised that it was difficult to get a good view of the night horizon so we adopted flying at 500 feet. For these missions the cockpit was darkened as much as possible and we always had two navigators, one to map read and maintain our course and the other to operate the RADAR and ensure that we didn’t fly into any hills. Once we had become night adapted with our eyes it wasn’t too bad, there were no night vision goggles back then. After a few of these training missions from Richmond it was decided to deploy a couple of aircraft to a remote dirt strip and conduct our training from there. This certainly added that extra bit of adrenaline rush to one’s composure. So after all this training it came as quite a surprise that we were tasked with an actual mission and I ended up doing two of them. Naturally I am unable to give the details of these missions even today, but it was very satisfying to have used the Herc for an important operational purpose. I will say that both missions were within Australia. The way it was conducted was very exciting for me. We were told to board the aircraft at a certain time and we were not to leave the flight deck at any time, not even during the mission. Only the loadmaster was permitted down the back to secure the load and check the paperwork. At this point he was given an envelope with instructions to hand the envelope to the captain after we were airborne. We would get airborne with no air traffic control flight plan, no search and rescue flight following and no external navigation lights permitted. Once airborne we would open the envelope and receive a latitude and longitude position and a time to arrive overhead and drop our secret load plus or minus 30 seconds on a single light source. On both the missions I was on we achieved this to the second each time. Our training made these missions quite disappointingly routine and the only excitement about them was the fact that we didn’t know what we had dropped and to whom.
The most satisfying missions were Search and Rescue (SAR) and medical evacuations (MEDEVAC) because you felt like you were really helping people. I was on SAR standby crew over a Christmas period when we were tasked to look for a New Zealand sailor who had gone missing on a trip from NZ to Maloollaba in Queensland. His name, apparently, was Mr William Head. We set off to the search area to attempt to find this wayward sailor and spent the best part of three hours searching along and either side of his intended course to no avail. Unexpectedly a RAAF Orion, who was also tasked to join the search and replace us, turned up way early and relieved us. We had a lot of fuel left so we decided to head some 800 nautical miles North to look at Middleton Reef as it had a number of ship wrecks clearly visible on it and we were all keen to take a look. Middleton Reef is a circular shoal about three to four kilometers across, it looks like a rocky doughnut with shallow water and sandy bottom in the centre, which is home to thousands of sharks. Upon arriving at the reef it wasn’t long before we spotted what looked like Mr Head’s yacht lying on its side in the middle of the reef and although it had sunk the port side of the vessel was above the water. It didn’t take long to positively identify the craft as the one we had been looking for. There was no sign of Mr Head however. We radioed to the Orion to proceed to the new search area to take up the search for Mr Head as we had to depart due to our fuel state. The Orion, thankfully found Mr Head some distance from the reef rowing his small rubber dinghy in the direction of Australia. Apparently he had become agitated at the time taken for any rescue to arrive and decided to row to Australia, no doubt to register his dissatisfaction with Australia’s SAR efforts. The fact that he was 800 nautical miles North of his intended course and that he had ignored the first rule of being rescued, stay with your vehicle/vessel, showed that he was a dreadful navigator and his seamanship was also questionable. He went on TV and complained about our efforts saying that they were of a poor standard. Perhaps Mr Heads first name should have been Richard instead of William. His wife, during an interview on NZ TV, said that Mr Head would probably try again to sail to Australia. All I can say is he will probably miss it all together the next time, but Good Luck to you Sir anyway.
I truly enjoyed my time flying the Herc and I made many friends along the way. I learnt a lot about aviation, specially from the flight engineers and loadmasters, and I learned a lot about leadership and man management thanks to some very bad and some very good examples displayed by many of the people in the Squadron. I managed to get 2,200 hours on the Herc and I am proud of being an ex member of 36 Squadron.