Jumping the C 130A, a study in risk management

N131EC is a Lockheed C 130A with the orginal three bladed props. The plane is an ex RAAF tactical freighter, built in 1958, when Douglas DC 7s and Lockheed 1649 Connies and Boeing KC 97s were just ending production. 

 

This Herc is a classic antique and amazingly, still earns a living half a century after it left the production line. She looks almost like new, very clean, inside and out.

 

Where but in skydiving can you get rides in such classics as a C 130A, ATL 98 Carvair, C 54G, Connies etc for under $50? If you love propliners, learn to skydive. It is your very last chance to ride in classics that will never be FAA approved for carrying regular passengers. If flying is sitting in a plane then swimming is riding in a boat. To really fly, get out of the plane. Feel the sky.

 

For further info on the history of this plane visit: http://www.adastron.com/lockheed/hercules/a97-212.htm

Pictured here is C 130A  N131EC

2003 World Free Fall Convention (WFFC)  

Rantoul, Illinois at the former Chanute AFB field.

Earl Cherry is a well known air show aerobatic pilot who decided to buy a C 130A surplussed from the Royal Australian Air Force tactical cargo fleet. The plane had been sitting in the Arizona desert for several years before he bought it, but she fired right up and flew away with very little work. Note the 3 bladed props. This is the only Herc in the world that still uses these early propellers. Earl Cherry reports that  at altitudes below 17,000 ft they are actually more efficient than the four bladed props that superseded them. He has four zero time spare 3 bladed props and accordingly sees no reason to switch to the more modern props which cost a fortune. The plane is ex RAAF cargo bird and is truly IMMACULATE even though it is over FIFTY years old!

This plane was built in the late 1950s. It is an ideal jumpship... if you own a few oil wells and a refinery.  We paid $48 to be hauled to 14,500 ft in this classic. What a smoking deal, literally as those old turboprops do leave a slight black smoke trail behind them. She flew like a dream, no problems at all flight after flight. I made quite a few jumps from N131EC knowing that the opportunity might never present itself again.

The FAA is always in attendance at WFFC and their Flight Standards aircops always see a LOT they don't like.  They are quite suspicious of maintenance paperwork on old transport planes, especially when they are signed off by owners who are licensed A&Ps. The C 130A Herc presented a different problem as it was not licensed to be a jumpship.At WFFC, the FAA's skycops are up against some clever jumpers  who will not let government bureaucracy stand between them and a rare jumpship opportunity. To legally jump the C 130A we had to all fill out some sort of Screen Actors Guild waiver cards. Cameramen were hired and every jump was filmed for a movie, which somehow was never actually produced. We were on the manifest as actors or stuntmen in a movie production.  I think the Herc was licensed for movie work but could not carry passengers for hire.

I desperately wanted to jump the C 130A Herc but was a bit hesitant having seen recent footage of another A model Herc shedding its wings fighting a forest fire near Yosemite CA.  I had heard that the A model had an inherently weak wing box structure that had been hugely re-engineered and beefed up in subsequent models. Lockheed wants nothing to do with A models and will not support them other than urging their immediate conversion into beer cans. Quite a few A models have found their way into the airframe punishing fire tanker role, where two met tragic ends apparently as a result of in flight structural failure of the wing box.

 

www.iasa.com.au/.../C130TankerCrash-2.html

I used the Internet to query experts who told me that the wing box structure in the A model was marginal and could not withstand abuse such as overloading or fire fighting where flying heavily loaded in extreme turbulence is normal.  Amazingly,  I was able to establish contact with folks who had records of this very  plane's service in the RAAF. They sent me scans of military maintenance logs/cards showing major wing box inspection and rework by Lockheed shortly before it was sold as surplus. It had never been abused in RAAF service and it had not ever flown as an air tanker. The Lockheed  rework was recent so I took my chances.

Before I jumped this Herc, I had an opportunity to look closely at parts of the airframe that usually have evidence of poor maintenance. The crew had removed a lot of floor covers to get at an antenna cable run for maintenance. I got to see a good portion of the "bilge" of the plane up close. It was immaculate, not even a trace of corrosion anywhere. Obviously the Aussies took good care of this bird. The pilots were well qualified, one having flown thousand of hours in USCG HC 130s. Having done the best I could to assess the risk, I jumped this gorgeous but ancient Herc. Obviously nothing bad happened.

This plane stopped coming to WFFC and rumors abounded that it had found lucrative work in the shadowy part of government service. Some reports indicated that it was flying terror suspects to foreign countries on behalf of Uncle Sam in so-called "rendition" work. Others said it was doing clandestine airdrops. The owner did place some ads seeking crew with airdrop experience long after N131EC stopped dropping skydivers, so the second guess might have been right. 

This C 130A Hercules has also been used to test the use of tip tanks in place of the underwing external tanks. Reportedly this gives extra range and improved performance. When I flew on her the mods had not yet been made.

 
N131EC with tip tank mod, done by Snow Aviation.

 

I was actually scared during climb to jump altitude on my first Herc jump. It had nothing to do with fear about my jump.  Some young crew members were demonstrating their courage by nonchalantly walking within inches of the edge of the open tailgate, wearing no chute or safety harness.  It was probably just machismo, but it literally made me queasy watching it. One bump and bye bye. I finally had to just look away or I would have lost my lunch.

Below is an exit photo from N131EC, probably the world's oldest flying C 130. That's me in the blue jumpsuit.