In two weeks, the last MC-130E Combat Talon I will complete its final phase of programmed depot maintenance at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., before departing for its final run from the flight line.
The Combat Talon I fleet has been at Robins for PDM since the 1990s. The program was transferred from Lockheed’s Big Safari program office in Palmdale, Calif., which at the time was responsible for Air Force sustainment and modification of specialized, special-mission aircraft.
The MC-130E fleet included 14 aircraft, with all having been maintained at the depot on multiple occasions since the plane’s first arrival for PDM in April 1998.
The Combat Talon I is being retired and replaced by the MC-130J.
This last plane, tail number 62-1843, is the oldest in the fleet, and has been on station since September. Due to the plane’s heavy special operations missions, it was in “pretty bad shape upon arrival,” said Kevin Johnson, 560th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron first line supervisor.
There were issues with many of the structural components in the wheel well, as well as typical corrosion wear on the aircraft, tail damage and horizontal stabilizer issues.
“With the history of Talons, there is generally a good bit of work for everyone involved – structural and avionics-wise,” George Hoffman, 560 AMXS PDM flight chief, said. “These Talons have a lot of modifications done to them. Structurally, they have a lot of cracks and corrosion.
“They’re flown pretty hard and accumulate a lot of hours,” he added. “They [Air Force Special Operations Command] keep ‘em flying.”
Hoffman echoed the sentiments of maintainers who have been involved with the plane for many years.
“It’s a significant workload for Robins to lose – as it’s a unique airplane for what it does,” he said. “We’ll pick up new ones, but this one has served its purpose. It’s an end of an era.”
Combat Talon I was originally conceived and developed during the 1960s in response to emerging threats in Southeast Asia. It first flew in 1966.
As a result of two events – rapidly escalating air requirements and the development of the Fulton Recovery System, a surface-to-air extraction system – during the early to mid-1960s in Vietnam, 14 HC-130 aircraft were modified.
The aircraft were identified as C-130E/I, later redesignated the MC-130E. Those early aircraft, which were camouflaged with black and/or dark green paint, were known as “Blackbirds.”
Its storied history is not lost on those who have worked or flown the aircraft. A must-read for people familiar with the world of Combat Talon I is retired Col. Jerry L. Thigpen’s “The Praetorian STARShip: The Untold Story of the Combat Talon.”
According to Thigpen, the basis for the aircraft was the need for continued long-range, low-level missions that were required into hostile territories across the globe.
From 1965 to 2000, the weapons system was involved in virtually every major conflict or contingency, including the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm,” the author detailed in his book.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was the last major contingency tasked to Combat Talon I.
Air Force veteran and former navigator Robert “Bob” Lewis knows the plane intimately, having flown psychological operations and various missions on the Combat Talon I during the Vietnam War, and as a Lockheed employee following retirement from the service.
Lewis, currently a contractor at Robins with Support Systems Associates Inc., flew missions over Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam from June 1972 to December 1973.
“We would conduct strategic psychological operations, delivering both leaflets and other materials such as radios and facsimile money,” recalled Lewis. “You had to fly long legs, straight lines, dropping 150-pound boxes. In some cases, the counts were as many as 17 million leaflets per airplane load.”
The 1960s-era aircraft has since evolved into its current sophisticated and extensive electronic warfare suite, allowing aircrew to detect and avoid potential threats, many of which are familiar to Lewis. Back when he flew, he said he remembers navigating by standing by a window with a flashlight in his mouth, red light on, looking at a map.
“What you have today are graphics that are generated by your computer, and displayed as overlays on your radar. Your situational awareness is tremendously enhanced,” he said.
Jeff Spears, a Talon I electrical engineer at Robins, has made the aircraft his home away from home since working on the program the last 17 years. Being associated with its history has been a welcoming experience, as well as working with its upgrades throughout the years.
“It would be fair to say that the Talon I was up to date with respect to the latest threat technology,” Spears said.
With this last plane leaving shortly, Lewis summed up the feelings of many, “All things come to an end. Airplanes can’t keep flying indefinitely. For what it had been tasked to accomplish – it has done its job.”