USMC KC-130F Hercules performing takeoffs and landings aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal in 1963. The aircraft is now displayed at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
The first production aircraft, C-130As were first delivered beginning in 1956 to the 463d Troop Carrier Wing at Ardmore AFB, Oklahoma and the 314th Troop Carrier Wing at Sewart AFB, Tennessee. Six additional squadrons were assigned to the 322d Air Division in Europe and the 315th Air Division in the Far East. Additional aircraft were modified for electronics intelligence work and assigned to Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany while modified RC-130As were assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) photo-mapping division.
In 1958, a U.S. reconnaissance C-130A-II of the 7406th Support Squadron was shot down over Armenia by MiG-17s.
Australia became the first non-American force to operate the C-130A Hercules with 12 examples being delivered from late 1958. These aircraft were fitted with AeroProducts three-blade, 15-foot diameter propellers. The Royal Canadian Air Force became another early user with the delivery of four B-models (Canadian designation C-130 Mk I) in October / November 1960.
In 1963, a Hercules achieved and still holds the record for the largest and heaviest aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier. During October and November that year, a USMC KC-130F (BuNo 149798), loaned to the U.S. Naval Air Test Center, made 29 touch-and-go landings, 21 unarrested full-stop landings and 21 unassisted take-offs on Forrestal at a number of different weights. The pilot, LT (later RADM) James H. Flatley III, USN, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in this test series. The tests were highly successful, but the idea was considered too risky for routine "Carrier Onboard Delivery" (COD) operations. Instead, the Grumman C-2 Greyhound was developed as a dedicated COD aircraft. The Hercules used in the test, most recently in service with Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron 352 (VMGR-352) until 2005, is now part of the collection of the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida.
In 1964, C-130 crews from the 6315th Operations Group at Naha Air Base, Okinawa commenced forward air control (FAC; "Flare") missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos supporting USAF strike aircraft. In April 1965 the mission was expanded to North Vietnam where C-130 crews led formations of B-57 bombers on night reconnaissance/strike missions against communist supply routes leading to South Vietnam. In early 1966 Project Blind Bat/Lamplighter was established at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand. After the move to Ubon the mission became a four-engine FAC mission with the C-130 crew searching for targets then calling in strike aircraft. Another little-known C-130 mission flown by Naha-based crews was Operation Commando Scarf, which involved the delivery of chemicals onto sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos that were designed to produce mud and landslides in hopes of making the truck routes impassable.
In November 1964, on the other side of the globe, C-130Es from the 464th Troop Carrier Wing but loaned to 322d Air Division in France, flew one of the most dramatic missions in history in the former Belgian Congo. After communist Simba rebels took white residents of the city of Stanleyville hostage, the U.S. and Belgium developed a joint rescue mission that used the C-130s to airlift and then drop and air-land a force of Belgian paratroopers to rescue the hostages. Two missions were flown, one over Stanleyville and another over Paulis during Thanksgiving weeks. The headline-making mission resulted in the first award of the prestigious MacKay Trophy to C-130 crews.
In the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, the Pakistan Air Force modified/improvised several aircraft for use as heavy bombers, and attacks were made on Indian bridges and troop concentrations with some successes. No aircraft were lost in the operations, though one was slightly damaged.
In October 1968, a C-130Bs from the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing dropped a pair of M-121 10,000 pound bombs that had been developed for the massive B-36 bomber but had never been used. The U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force resurrected the huge weapons as a means of clearing landing zones for helicopters and in early 1969 the 463rd commenced Commando Vault missions. Although the stated purpose of COMMANDO VAULT was to clear LZs, they were also used on enemy base camps and other targets.
During the late 1960s, the U.S. was eager to get information on Chinese nuclear capabilities. After the failure of the Black Cat Squadron to plant operating sensor pods near the Lop Nur Nuclear Weapons Test Base using a Lockheed U-2, the CIA developed a plan, named Heavy Tea, to deploy two battery-powered sensor pallets near the base. To deploy the pallets, a Black Bat Squadron crew was trained in the U.S. to fly the C-130 Hercules. The crew of 12, led by Col Sun Pei Zhen, took off from Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in an unmarked U.S. Air Force C-130E on 17 May 1969. Flying for six and a half hours at low altitude in the dark, they arrived over the target and the sensor pallets were dropped by parachute near Anxi in Gansu province. After another six and a half hours of low altitude flight, they arrived back at Takhli. The sensors worked and uploaded data to a U.S. intelligence satellite for six months, before their batteries wore out. The Chinese conducted two nuclear tests, on 22 September 1969 and 29 September 1969, during the operating life of the sensor pallets. Another mission to the area was planned as Operation Golden Whip, but was called off in 1970. It is most likely that the aircraft used on this mission was either C-130E serial number 64-0506 or 64-0507 (cn 382-3990 and 382-3991). These two aircraft were delivered to Air America in 1964. After being returned to the U.S. Air Force sometime between 1966 and 1970, they were assigned the serial numbers of C-130s that had been destroyed in accidents. 64-0506 is now flying as 62-1843, a C-130E that crashed in Vietnam on 20 December 1965 and 64-0507 is now flying as 63-7785, a C-130E that had crashed in Vietnam on 17 June 1966.
The A-model continued in service through the Vietnam War, where the aircraft assigned to the four squadrons at Naha AB, Okinawa and one at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan performed yeoman's service, including operating highly classified special operations missions such as the BLIND BAT FAC/Flare mission and FACT SHEET leaflet mission over Laos and North Vietnam. The A-model was also provided to the South Vietnamese Air Force as part of the Vietnamization program at the end of the war, and equipped three squadrons based at Tan Son Nhut AFB. The last operator in the world is the Honduran Air Force, which is still flying one of five A model Hercules (FAH 558, c/n 3042) as of October 2009. As the Vietnam War wound down, the 463rd Troop Carrier/Tactical Airlift Wing B-models and A-models of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing were transferred back to the United States where most were assigned to Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units
Another prominent role for the B model was with the United States Marine Corps, where Hercules initially designated as GV-1s replaced C-119s. After Air Force C-130Ds proved the type's usefulness in Antarctica, the U.S. Navy purchased a number of B-models equipped with skis that were designated as LC-130s. C-130B-II electronic reconnaissance aircraft were operated under the SUN VALLEY program name primarily from Yokota Air Base, Japan. All reverted to standard C-130B cargo aircraft after their replacement in the reconnaissance role by other aircraft.
The C-130 was also used in the 1976 Entebbe raid in which Israeli commando forces carried a surprise assault to rescue 103 passengers of an airliner hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists at Entebbe Airport, Uganda. The rescue force — 200 soldiers, jeeps, and a black Mercedes-Benz (intended to resemble Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin's vehicle of state) — was flown over 2,200 nmi (4,074 km; 2,532 mi) almost entirely at an altitude of less than 100 ft (30 m) from Israel to Entebbe by four Israeli Air Force (IAF) Hercules aircraft without mid-air refueling (on the way back, the planes refueled in Nairobi, Kenya).
During the Falklands War (Spanish: Guerra de las Malvinas) of 1982, Argentine Air Force C-130s undertook highly dangerous, daily re-supply night flights as blockade runners to the Argentine garrison on the Falkland Islands. They also performed daylight maritime survey flights. One was lost during the war. Argentina also operated two KC-130 tankers during the war, and these refueled both the Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and Navy Dassault-Breguet Super Étendards; some C-130s were modified to operate as bombers with bomb-racks under their wings. The British also used RAF C-130s to support their logistical operations.
During the Gulf War of 1991 (Operation Desert Storm), the C-130 Hercules was used operationally by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, along with the air forces of Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the UK. The MC-130 Combat Talon variant also made the first attacks using the largest conventional bombs in the world, the BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter" and GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, also known as the MOAB. Daisy Cutters were used to clear landing zones and to eliminate mine fields. The weight and size of the weapons make it impossible or impractical to load them on conventional bombers. The GBU-43/B MOAB is a successor to the BLU-82 and can perform the same function, as well as perform strike functions against hardened targets in a low air threat environment.
Since 1992, two successive C-130 aircraft named Fat Albert have served as the support aircraft for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team. Fat Albert I was a TC-130G (15189), while Fat Albert II is a C-130T (164763). Although Fat Albert supports a Navy squadron, it is operated by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) and its crew consists solely of USMC personnel. At some air shows featuring the team, Fat Albert takes part, performing flyovers. Until 2009, it also demonstrated its rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO) capabilities; these ended due to dwindling supplies of rockets.
The AC-130 also holds the record for the longest sustained flight by a C-130. From 22 to 24 October 1997, two AC-130U gunships flew 36 hours nonstop from Hurlburt Field Florida to Taegu (Daegu), South Korea while being refueled seven times by KC-135 tanker aircraft. This record flight shattered the previous record longest flight by over 10 hours while the two gunships took on 410,000 lb (190,000 kg) of fuel. The gunship has been used in every major U.S. combat operation since Vietnam, except for Operation El Dorado Canyon, the 1986 attack on Libya.
During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the ongoing support of the International Security Assistance Force (Operation Enduring Freedom), the C-130 Hercules has been used operationally by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, the UK and the United States.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom), the C-130 Hercules was used operationally by Australia, the UK and the United States. After the initial invasion, C-130 operators as part of the Multinational force in Iraq used their C-130s to support their forces in Iraq.
Since 2004, the Pakistan Air Force has employed C-130s in the War in North-West Pakistan. Some variants had forward looking infrared (FLIR Systems Star Safire III EO/IR) sensor balls, to enable close tracking of Islamist militants.
The U.S. Forest Service developed the Modular Airborne FireFighting System for the C-130 in the 1970s, which allows regular aircraft to be temporarily converted to an airtanker for fighting wildfires. In the late 1980s, 22 retired USAF C-130As were removed from storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service who then sold them to six private companies to be converted into air tankers (see U.S. Forest Service airtanker scandal). After one of these aircraft crashed due to wing separation in flight as a result of fatigue stress cracking, the entire fleet of C-130A air tankers was permanently grounded in 2004 (see 2002 airtanker crashes). C-130s have been used to spread chemical dispersants onto the massive oil slick in the Gulf Coast in 2010.
A recent development of a C-130–based airtanker is the Retardant Aerial Delivery System developed by Coulson Aviation USA. The system consists of a C-130H/Q retrofitted with an in-floor discharge system, combined with a removable 3,500- or 4,000-gallon water tank. The combined system is FAA certified.