When Hall Hibbard at the Lockheed Corporation directed a proposal for the Lockheed Model 82 to Clarence “Kelly” Johnson for a professional opinion on the concept, Johnson responded tersely, saying: “If you sign that letter, you will destroy the Lockheed Company.” Today, we revere Johnson as one of the most legendary aircraft engineers and designers in history, responsible for bringing about high-flying and high-speed aircraft such as the F-104 Starfighter and the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 Blackbird. However, he was never so wrong in his entire career as he was on the Model 82. When Hibbard, an executive, signed the proposal for the Model 82, he helped Lockheed win a vital contract with the US Air Force, which would quickly evolve into the greatest tactical airlift aircraft to have ever existed- the C-130 Hercules.
Future aircrew and pilots were understandably excited for the advent of the Hercules. It would replace the aged C-119 Flying Boxcars, C-47 Skytrains and C-46 Commandos, the latter two of which were in service as far back as the Second World War. The C-130 represented a leap undertaken by the Air Force to move into a more modern era of warfare, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By the time the war in Vietnam came around, the Herc was afforded its first chance to prove itself in combat, and prove itself it did. Fast forward nearly 50 years later and the C-130 still flies with the US Air Force, albeit with a plethora of updates that gives it a range of capabilities Hall Hibbard would likely never have envisioned when he scribbled his John Hancock on the proposal for the Model 82. But instead of making this about the C-130’s broad history, I’d like to take you back to the Herc’s first years in service with the USAF with a story about four pilots and four C-130As that you might never have heard of ever before.
Ardmore AFB, Oklahoma, became the Hercules’ first home in late 1956, when the former Tactical Air Command (TAC) assigned a selection of C-130As to replace C-119 Flying Boxcars in the troop transport role with the 463rd Troop Carrier Wing. Pilots were quickly trained and checked out on the big airframe, a seemingly larger four-engined version of the C-123 Provider. By early 1957, the US Army was already sending its paratroopers up aboard C-130s for airborne training jumps, and the Air Force was firmly in the process of fully integrating the Hercules into every role it was initially built for. It was during one of those airborne static-jump training missions that the only C-130 demonstration team to have ever flown came together.
In that period when winter’s at its end, but spring isn’t spring just yet, a handful of C-130As were flown over to Campbell Army Air Field in Kentucky, home to the 101st Airborne Division (back when their soldiers jumped out of fixed wing planes and not helicopters) for a set of coordinated airdrops. As Mother Nature generally doesn’t care for the meticulously methodical planning of company and field grade officers, the drops were called off. High winds had made the drop zone incredibly dangerous, and having paratroopers jump in such conditions would be unnecessarily hazardous. Regardless, the Air Force pilots flying the C-130As decided to fly anyways. They needed to build their hours and formation time, and like annoyingly optimistic people love to say- there’s no time like the present! Captains David Moore, William Hatfield, Gene Chaney and Jim Akin, all belonging to the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron (also known as “The Green Weasels”) and all with a fair bit of experience in the transport/airlift community, decided to make it interesting. They would take off at five second intervals, then form up over Kentucky/Tennessee (as Fort Campbell sits near the border of the two states). Closing in on each other in an increasingly-tighter formation, they dropped altitude for a set of passes over Campbell, culminating in a few thunderous aerial marches down Campbell’s main runway to the awe of all watching from the ground. A few days later, adverse jump conditions scrubbed another training mission, allowing the four to practice their formation flying once more.
After completing their temporary assignment at Campbell, Moore, Hatfield, Chaney and Akin returned to Ardmore with the makings of a unique idea brewing in their minds. For months afterward, they would use flight time to practice their formation flying, slowly but surely developing an aerial routine unlike any other. The following year, the foursome had their chance to show off their prowess with the C-130. Notified of an impending flypast for the viewing pleasure of TAC brass during a ceremony at Ardmore, the four pilots saw an opportunity to perform one of their signature moves during the ceremony’s overhead festivities, and accordingly asked the 463rd’s wing commander for permission to perform their stunt, promising that the safety of the other aircraft in the sky and the people on the ground wouldn’t be compromised in the least. Armed with the wing commander’s blessing, the group was assigned to fly four of thirty six C-130As for the flyby. At the very end of it, the crowds watched as the four pilots broke their Hercs away from the main group, formed up in a diamond pattern and roared over the field at around 300 knots, ending with a bomb-burst breakaway. Though a number of Air Force officers were shocked and somewhat angry with the antics of the four C-130 aircraft commanders, an even larger number with more clout were impressed.
Calling themselves the Thunderweasels, a portmanteau of the Air Force’s official flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, and their squadron’s nickname, the Green Weasels, they had their first real performance scheduled for later that year. Reassigned to Stewart AFB in Tennessee upon the fast-approaching closure of Ardmore AFB, the Thunderweasels were requested to do a flyover for the 314th Troop Carrier Wing, who’d be receiving their own C-130s at the same time. Their show drew cheers and yells of delight, and their status as a flight demo team was cemented by the Air Force soon after. Realizing that the Thunderweasels nickname, though hilariously awesome, wasn’t the best name to be associated with such a stunning act, they adopted The Four Horsemen as their standard team name, possibly as a tribute to Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne’s 1924 Rose Bowl champion team’s backfield. Akin, on the other hand, was clear that the name was in reference to the biblical four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; fitting since the team had four aircraft for each of the four Horsemen. For the next three years, the four-Herc team would fly the following routine, taking just about twenty three minutes to complete.
1. Close-formation takeoff,
2. Left turn,
3. Arrow formation,
4. Arrowhead formation,
5. Diamond formation,
6. Echelon right,
7. The Horsemen-burst.
8. Re-form to the diamond formation,
9. Fan break,
10. Formation landing.
Akin, Chaney, Moore and Hatfield formed the core of the Horsemen team, though their copilots, navigators, engineers, etc. generally rotated around. Though the C-130 is actually somewhat large and bulky, its looks belie its maneuverability and agility. However, as maneuverable as the Herc is, the Horsemen needed to keep their minds focused and their heads very much in the game, as the slightest slip up could cause a disaster in the sky, and possibly an even bigger on on the ground. To avoid collisions and the buffeting from propwash, the pilots needed to be at a heightened state of awareness at all times with a hand on the throttle quadrant, and a wary eye on the airspeed indicator. Lockheed saw a huge opportunity with the team as a promotional tool for selling around the C-130. A brief film called “Hercules and the Four Horsemen” was produced by Lockheed’s Georgia Division. The actual Horsemen themselves were taken aback. The footage, at times, showed the Horsemen’s C-130s above the clouds, when they consistently performed their routines below 2000 feet, and had their voices dubbed over by actors with northern accents (the Horsemen were from the south). By 1960, the team had flown more than a dozen shows and had staged a few more unofficial performances in-between.
As with all good things, the Horsemen’s time had to come to an end eventually. Most aircraft, in their early configurations, come with issues and problems that need to be resolved with future aircraft of the type. The C-130A was a fuel-thirsty beast, and its range was less than what the Air Force needed. The C-130B, the next iteration of the Herc, came with the very set of improvements that the aircraft sorely needed. However, it lacked the same control responsiveness as the C-130A. Tight formation flying would be even more dangerous than ever before, especially considering that the Herc wasn’t actually built to perform as such.
Similar to the Sports Illustrated curse that seems to plague every team/athlete that graces its magazine’s front covers, the Horsemen were featured on the cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology in January of 1960. Soon afterward, in the spring of that same year, the Horsemen were disbanded. Some claim that the reasons for the disbanding of the team were political in nature. The government didn’t want to fund yet another flight demonstration team, which in itself is a very costly enterprise. The team themselves knew that they were due to be rotated to other units. The Air Force needed its C-130 fleets fully operational as well, and having a number indefinitely set aside for a committed demonstration team wouldn’t do. Three of the four Horsemen went on to have highly successful careers with the Air Force, while Moore retired from flying soon after the team’s breakup. Though the Horsemen have been relegated to the shadows of history, their amazing feats and airmanship is still spoken of today in reverent tones among all those who’ve crewed, flown and even built Hercs.