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(photo credit: Yaakov Katz)
They are loud, clunky, fat and old, but for the Israel Air Force, the C-130 cargo planes are irreplaceable. With dials and switches from the days of propeller flights, the cockpits look like they are out of a vintage black-and-white movie. Hardly the image of a modern deterring air force.
Yet these sturdy turbo-propeller planes are the backbone of the IAF's transport fleet. This month they celebrate 35 years in Israeli service. In their time they have run some of the country's longest-range missions: from saving hostages in Entebbe and transporting Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel to flying humanitarian aid to India and Kosovo.
During the recent war in Lebanon, these planes were once again brought into action to succeed where others had failed - getting food, water and other supplies to soldiers operating on the ground behind enemy lines. The missions were complicated and accompanied by a constant fear that the large planes - and easy targets - would be shot down by Hizbullah advanced weaponry. But despite the danger, the pilots jumped at the chance to help their comrades in arms, flying over 100 sorties over Lebanon and parachuting hundreds of tons of supplies to IDF troops below.
The IAF calls the chubby C-130 "Karnaf" - Hebrew for rhinoceros - although many still refer to it by its American nickname, Hercules. The large plane is capable of carrying 45 tons of equipment, flying almost 2,500 km. and landing on anything from the size of a football stadium. The planes have carried out some of the most sensitive missions in Israeli history.
Several days after the war in Lebanon began, the General Staff convened for one of its routine daily meetings at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Maps were rolled out and the generals began talking about the failure to break open logistic routes to allow the transfer of supplies to soldiers deep inside Lebanon. The generals sat around arguing how to get the supplies to the soldiers until IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy raised his hand and offered, despite the clear and present danger, the C-130 squadron, also known as the Elephant Squadron, to carry out the mission.
"Everything the air force will need to do it will do," Shkedy was quoted as saying during the meeting after realizing that there were no other solutions to the grave logistic problem. Following the meeting, Shkedy held his own security assessment back at IAF headquarters and decided to call up the Hercules cargo planes to do the job. Within hours the squadron was already reviewing maps of Lebanon in preparation for the missions ahead.
The sorties over Lebanon, all at night, were accompanied by a sense of excitement, says Maj. T., deputy commander of the squadron, but also by a fear of entering the unknown.
"No one expressed his fear in public but everyone felt it," T. said in a recent interview at Squadron headquarters near Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod. "This is what we trained for and this is what we are supposed to do."
OUTSIDE THE squadron's small briefing room sits a line of C-130s looking majestic as the sun shines off their wings during a fall sunset. With a wingspan of 133 feet and a length of 100 feet, the aircraft are capable of carrying alternatively - four Hummer jeeps, 92 passengers with seats or 200 without seats. While one pilot, sometimes backed by a navigator, flies fighter jets, the Hercules - with an old frame and a large cargo hold - has a crew of five - two pilots, a navigator, flight engineer and loadmaster.
Climbing into the almost 40-feet-tall plane, one is taken aback by the large empty space and can easily imagine how the cargo hold can carry jeeps and commandos and parachute them deep behind enemy lines for covert operations.
The flights into Lebanon, Maj. T. says, took five minutes from the moment the planes crossed into Lebanon and returned to Israel. Fighter jets, attack helicopters and ground forces provided a "protective envelope" for the bulky and easy targets.
"In the cockpit you don't feel the fear or the danger outside," says one of the squadron's pilots, Capt. E. "When you are up in the air you are more concerned for the soldiers on the ground."
As the longest-range aircraft in the IAF fleet, the Hercules, with a range of 2,500 kilometers without refueling, are known for many long-range missions, including the delivery of commandos to rescue hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in Entebbe in 1976. They also flew IDF humanitarian missions from Macedonia to Rwanda.
The jewel in the fleet's crown is Operation Moses, the covert flights that brought close to 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the mid-1980s.
According to a recent report in Time magazine, the IAF has been conducting major aerial refueling training with its fighter jets in preparation for the possibility of a massive airstrike on Iran's nuclear sites.
"There is nothing too far away and out of our reach," Maj. T. says. "There is also nothing too difficult and the Hercules is the best platform in the world today to perform a wide range of missions from landing on ice, flying through hurricanes, extinguishing fires and parachuting soldiers and supplies."
According to Maj. T., the C-130s might be old planes but they are still capable of learning new tricks. "The plane is flexible and built strong with a high level of survivability," he says. Operation Thunderbolt in Entebbe was a perfect example: A surprised enemy, a dark runway and the safe return of commandos and hostages from a distant country.
THE IAF'S affair with the C-130 began in 1971 after the United States government signaled to Israel it was willing to talk about selling the aircraft, assembled by Lockheed Martin. IAF commander at the time Maj.-Gen. Moti Hod appointed Yehoshua Shani, then a pilot in the air force, to lead a secret IAF delegation to the US to learn about the new plane.
Several months later, the delegation returned to Israel with two brand-new C-130s, the IAF's first. The bulk of the C-130s arrived two years later during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as part of the "arms train" the US sent Israel during its time of desperation. 12 aircraft arrived, all graduates of the Vietnam War.
By 1976, the IAF had received 24 aircraft, some of which were converted into refueling tankers, something like an airborne gas station. Two squadrons were established: "Elephant" and "Yellow Bird" stationed at Lod Air Force Base near Ben-Gurion Airport. Shani later became commander of the Yellow Bird Squadron and led the four-plane structure that flew the rescue force to Entebbe in 1976. Today he is Lockheed Martin's representative in Israel.
Lt.-Col. (res.) H., an El Al pilot, has served in the Elephant Squadron for 20 years and when he is not busy ferrying tourists and businessmen to New York and Los Angeles, he flies Hercules. His reserves career has taken him around the world to Rwanda, Lebanon, Kenya, India, Kosovo, Egypt and Jordan.
During the recent war, Lt.-Col. (res.) H. made several flights over Lebanon. In the Eighties he participated in Operation Moses, until a few years ago highly classified, and flew C-130s a number of times into African countries bringing back thousands of Ethiopian Jews in conjunction with the Mossad.
"This squadron is the personification of Zionism," says Lt.-Col. (res.) H., who recently returned from a two-year stint in Mexico as the Jewish Agency's emissary to the local Jewish community.
While the planes have not changed over the years and the dials and switches have remained the same since the 1960s, the pilots in the squadron, claims Lt.-Col. H., have improved over time.
"The pilots become smarter and while the planes stay the same we develop smarter methods of using them," he says. "We are constantly moving forward."
At the moment, the IAF is in the midst of deciding what to do with these old but vital aircraft. The top command has reached a strategic decision that it wants to keep them and has also determined that there is nothing on the horizon to replace them.
There are two options on the table: Either purchasing the ultra-modern C-130 "J" model from Lockheed Martin, which has already been sold to the United States Air Force and other militaries at around $100 million a piece, or sending the aircraft to Boeing to undergo an avionics modernization program.
The USAF recently decided to go ahead with this second option for at least 400 of its C-130s, which involves tossing out old cockpits and replacing them with glass ones that include new radar, auto pilot, communication and navigation gear. [See box for more on C-130 future.]
The Elephant Squadron's slogan - "Slowly, slowly, we are in a rush" - perfectly reflects the feeling among the pilots. The Hercules, now 35 years in IAF service, don't necessarily move as smoothly as they used to but with many long-range missions ahead, there is no doubt that they will continue to serve Israel in the coming decades.
"This is what we are here for," says Lt.-Col. (res.) H. "Wherever there is someone in need of help we can get there."
New or renew?
After 35 years in service there is no longer even an argument within the IAF. Everyone realizes that something needs to be done to bring the old C-130 Hercules into the next generation.
Since its first flight on August 23, 1954, Lockheed Martin has manufactured 2,300 C-130s, which operate in close to 70 countries around the world including Great Britain, Australia, Italy and Denmark.
Now at a crossroads, IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz will need to decide in the coming months whether they plan to send the 35-year-old planes for further upgrades or buy the new C-130 "J" Super Hercules and do away with the old ones.
The newest version of the Hercules, the "J" model, is externally similar to the classic Hercules but is in fact a very different aircraft. If purchased, it will bring the IAF's two C-130 squadrons into the next century. The differences include new Rolls-Royce Allison AE21000 turboprops with six-bladed composite propellers and digital avionics including heads-up displays for the pilots.
According to Lockheed Martin, while the newer planes might cost a hefty $100 million a piece, they will have lower operating costs. An upgrade for the old planes might be cheaper in the initial investment but would prove more expensive in the long run with pricey operational costs.
Compared to the earlier production C-130E, maximum speed in the "J" model is up 21 percent, and climb time is down 50%. Cruising altitude is 40% higher, and range is 40% longer. With new engines and new propellers, the "J" can reach 28,000 feet in 14 minutes. Moreover, for tricky low-altitude maneuvers, the new avionics and dual head-up displays make it easier and safer to operate.
The other option for the IDF is to send the planes to Boeing for a major upgrade under the US company's C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP). In September, Boeing announced the first flight of a C-130 aircraft that had its cockpit gutted and revamped to improve navigation and communication.
Boeing is modifying more than 10 aircraft of the USAF under a design and development contract. It expects to modify 30 to 40 additional planes in low-rate production before competing for the full-rate production contract. This will include about 400 C-130 aircraft, said Madonna Walsh, a spokeswoman for St Louis-based Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.
For Lt.-Col. H., a reserves pilot with an IAF's Hercules squadron, the answer of what to do is simple. "If we upgrade the planes they will last another 10 years," he says. "If there is a budget then we need to buy new planes since even though they are still sturdy, the day will come when the old planes will yell: Enough!"