August 22, 2014 (by SSgt. Whitney Amstutz) - The C-130 community at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, celebrated a significant milestone Aug. 23 when the historic aircraft marked 60 years of aerial superiority and dedicated service.
Eight AC-130H Spectre gunships taxi into position on the flightline prior to the final AC-130H mission conducted at Cannon AFB on January 16, 2014. [USAF photo by SSgt. Matthew Plew]
Originally designed to carry out troop, medical evacuation and cargo transportation missions, the C-130 of today has been produced in more than 70 variations and functions in roles ranging from aerial refueling, locally demonstrated by the MC-130J Commando II, to armed over-watch, performed by Cannon's AC-130H Spectre gunship and the AC-130W Stinger II.
Air Commandos at the 27th Special Operations Wing have a unique, ever-present vantage into the C-130's storied past. Combat Talon I, an MC-130E which played a pivotal role in personnel recovery during the Vietnam War, is forever immortalized as a static display at Cannon's front gates.
"This Talon I was part of the 7th Special Operations Squadron and first flew in 1966," said Richard Shea, 27 SOW base historian. "This tail number was the lead aircraft that performed a Prisoner of War extraction in North Vietnam, called the Son Tay Raid, in 1970."
After more than 40 years of service providing close air support, air interdiction and force protection for special operations forces, preparation for the retirement and phase out of the AC-130H, dubbed the "world's deadliest conventional weapon" by the Military Channel and Fox News, has begun.
While six of the eight Spectre gunships in existence will come to rest in the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, "Gravedigger," which has seen action in Vietnam, El Salvador, Grenada, Somalia, Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Afghanistan, now occupies a place of honor in Cannon's dedicated Air Park.
"It's hard to encapsulate in a single phrase all of the action these aircraft have seen, special operations forces they've saved and how truly historic these airframes are," stated Lt. Col. Jimmy Mott, former 16th Special Operations Squadron commander. "It is a bittersweet, emotional phase out for everyone at the 16 SOS, but all good things must come to an end. We are looking forward to starting a new era with the AC-130J Ghostrider."
Another of Cannon's go-to gunships, the AC-130W is operated by the 73rd Special Operations Squadron at Cannon, one of eight flying squadrons within the 27 SOW. The Stinger II is a multi-role aircraft capable of conducting close air support, air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, and high altitude personnel airdrop in direct support of unified and theater special operations commands.
"The Stinger II is another example of marrying the latest technology with an airframe that has been around for 60 years and having instant impacts on the battlefield," said Lt. Col. Chester Dooly, 73 SOS commander. "It is key to the 27 SOW and AFSOC writ large because the ongoing efforts of the operators, maintainers, contractors and support personnel are laying the foundation for the developing AC-130J- the next 40-year gunship."
Another model of significant achievement, the MC-130J fleet achieved their 1 millionth hour in April 2013, adding to the laundry list of C-130 accomplishments at Cannon.
The MC-130J Commando II replaced Air Force Special Operations Command's older MC-130N/P Combat Shadow fleet. It flies low visibility, single or multi-ship low-level air refueling missions for special operations helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft, as well as infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces by airdrop into politically sensitive or hostile environments.
More recently, the first-ever continuous mission around the world by an MC-130J was completed at Cannon. The history-making mission spanned five continents and approximately 28,000 miles.
There are few locations on which the C-130 has yet to touchdown, and the aircraft has yet to make the acquaintance of a mission it can't fly to accomplishment. With a reputation for rendering limitations null and void, it's no wonder the tenacious aerial asset is colloquially known as the workhorse.