Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Serenade to the Iron Horse

Above, the HC-130P Iron Horse, tail number #62-1863, begins its final flight to retirement at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ; below, the same aircraft in its previous configuration as an EC-130E, based at D-M in the 1990s; photo credits: A1C Dillian Bamman (top); CMSgt Ron Hall, Jr (bottom)    


I'm feeling just a little bit older these days, and so are many of my Air Force brothers and sisters.

A friend of ours retired last week, after a 52-year active duty career.

Our comrade was a workhorse of the C-130 fleet, tail number 62-1863.  Last week, the venerable Herk, nicknamed "Iron Horse" made its final flight from Moody AFB, Georgia to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, becoming the newest resident of the USAF "boneyard," home to hundreds of aircraft that have been removed from operational service.

The flight to Tucson was a homecoming of sorts.  "Iron Horse" was based at Davis-Monthan from 1994-2002, as part of the 42nd Airborne Battlefield Command Control and Communications Squadron, better known as ABCCC.  The base was also where "Iron Horse" picked up its nickname, befitting one of the most durable airframes in a fleet known for its toughness and longevity. 

For a little perspective, consider this: when Iron Horse rolled off the Lockheed assembly line in 1962, John F. Kennedy was in the White House; the Air Force Chief of Staff was Curtis LeMay and The Beatles were almost two years away from their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."  The "new" fighter in the USAF inventory, the F-4 Phantom, was still a year away from introduction.

Iron Horse began its combat career in Vietnam, as a "trash hauler" assigned to the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing.  In 1971, the aircraft was transferred to the 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (ACCS), which operated from bases in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

Outfitted with a removable crew capsule in its cargo bay, ABCCC aircraft coordinated fire support for friendly forces on the ground, provided communications relay and could even assume the functions of an Air Support Operations Center (ASOC), or prosecute the current ops function for an Air Operations Center (AOC).  With as many as 23 radios available to the mission crew, "Bookshelf" could talk to everyone, making it a valuable C2 platform.

Iron Horse served with the 7th ACCS during its final days in Southeast Asia, then moved (briefly) with the unit to Clark AB in the Philippines and on to Keesler AFB, Mississippi.  The squadron arrived at Keesler in 1975 and spent almost 20 years on the Gulf Coast before moving--a final time--to Davis-Monthan in 1994.

That final relocation came during a long-term unit rotation to Aviano AB, Italy (in support of the Bosnia operation) and shorter deployments to Puerto Rico (for the 1994 invasion of Haiti) and Saudi Arabia, when Saddam was again threatening to invade Kuwait.  Your humble correspondent was a part of that excitement; I remember returning from Aviano on a Friday; the moving van showed up the following Tuesday to move us to Tucson and a week after signing in at D-M, I was on my way to Dhahran, part of the advance team for Saudi Arabia.

Through it all, Iron Horse (and the rest of the ABCCC fleet soldiered on), logging innumerable sorties and thousands of flying hours.  The unit and its aircraft participated in virtually every major contingency from Vietnam through the first Persian Gulf War, along with countless exercises and other deployments.  ABCCC finally received a new "computerized" capsule during the Gulf War, replacing the original version that dated from the 1960s.

In that earlier version, the mission crew used their comm capabilities and manually-updated displays to keep track on what was going on in the air and on the ground.  Old hands regaled newer personnel with "horror stories" of someone walking from the lavatory (located in the very back of the capsule) and brushing up against the display of a weapons controller or the intel team, and sending most of their sticky-back symbols tumbling to the floor.  There was a moment of panic (and a lot of scrambling) to restore the display and a few choice words from the offending party--usually a member of the flight deck crew.  

There were lighter moments as well.  During my time in the squadron, a certain battlestaff director (the equivalent of a mission crew commander on AWACS) became enraged when he found only one piece of friend chicken in his box lunch.  Convinced that the dining facility "had it in for him," the director instructed his radio team to work a phone patch to the flight kitchen at Aviano, where the mission originated.  The Tech Sergeant who answered the phone listened to the Lieutenant Colonel's tirade for about three seconds, then hung up.  Now fully enraged, the battlestaff director ordered a second phone patch, this time to the services squadron commander.  The unit commander wasn't particularly interested in that missing piece of chicken, either, and he hung up as well.  You can guess the rest; for the remainder of the deployment, that crew got "box nasties" that lived up to that description.

I flew my share of missions on Iron Horse and it was a superb aircraft, thanks to the maintenance crews that kept it flying.  For a mission over Bosnia, we typically launched before sunrise, ensuring we'd be on station before the first flights of F-16s, A-10s, F/A-18s and Harriers checked in.  That meant a very early rise and an early brief, but no one complained, realizing the maintainers had been out there for hours by the time we arrived.

On one occasion, my crew received an even earlier-than-usual wake-up call.  At that point in the deployment, there was concern that aircraft flying nighttime missions over Bosnia might be downed by Serbian SA-6 missiles.  So, the ABCCC crew assigned to fly the next day's mission pulled alert the night before, ready to scramble (and serve as the airborne search-and-rescue mission commander), if required.  Our alert quarters consisted of portable buildings in an aircraft shelter, just off the end of the runway.  Our "sleep" was punctuated by constant rumbles and roars, from the next pair of F/A-18s or F-16s heading out to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

I had just nodded off on this particular morning when someone from the ops desk began banging on the door, notifying us that we were being scrambled.  We threw on our flight suits and boots and stumbled to the briefing room, anxious to find out what had transpired and what our tasking would be.  "Stand-by," we were told.  So, our crew wait. And waited. And waited.

After more than an hour, someone from the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy called and explained it was all a mistake.  The on-duty CAOC Director (an Italian Air Force Colonel) had been directed to scramble an AC-130 gunship from Brindisi.  Unfortunately, the good Colonel wasn't familiar with the USAF's many Herk variants and called the EC-130 at Aviano.  By the time the confusion ended, it was time for us to get ready for the morning mission, so that duty day was even longer than usual.         

With the move to Arizona, the unit was re-designated the 42nd ACCS, but the aircraft and the mission remained the same.  But there were always questions about the squadron's future; wags suggested the move to D-M was aimed at easing retirement of the unit and its aircraft.  When that fateful moment arrived, they joked, the planes could simply be towed the boneyard, instead of flying them from Mississippi.  The Army, Marine Corps and the Special Ops community loved the squadron and its capabilities, but the platform was ultimately doomed in an Air Force run by fighter pilots.

The axe finally fell in 2002, just as the U.S. was entering conflicts that were tailor-made for ABCCC.  The 42nd ACCS was inactivated in September of that year, and most of the aircraft made that short trip to the boneyard, but Iron Horse survived.  Air Force Special Ops Command (AFSOC) needed more HC-130Ps to refuel its helos, and launched a program to convert some of the EC-130Es into tankers.

Ultimately, Iron Horse was the only airframe that made the transition.  With production of the C-130J in full swing, AFSOC decided it was more cost efficient to buy new aircraft than covert older Herks nearing the end of their service life.  Iron Horse would up with the 71st Rescue Squadron at Moody and continued to deploy until 2009.  By the end of its career, the aircraft had logged 27,533 flying hours, more than any other C-130 in the current Air Force inventory.

Farewell to a great airplane--and and old friend.          




Donald Watkins said...

I have logged msg hours on this aircraft and the other like it. I spent 10 years flying with men and women of the 7th ACCS at Keesler, AFB, MS. Of my career in the Air Force I have to say it was the best, I found a home there and a family that not only I went to war with more than once but a family that made sure my family at home was taken care of while I was gone. It was sad to see the squadron retire. They thought that a newer platform JSTARS E-8 (707) and AWACS could divide up our mission and do it well. The ABCCC is still needed today and the MARINE CORP have decide they would make one work. I don't think those in the Air Force that made the decision to retire ABCCC wants to say they made a mistake.

Nate Hale said...

Donald--Not sure if our time in the squadron overlapped, but your comments are spot-on. There is a great irony that ABCCC was retired on the eve of conflicts where it was needed most, Afghanistan and Iraq. JSTARS and AWACS were not a suitable replacement for ABCCC and that gap remains to this day.

Ironically, after leaving the 42nd at D-M, I wound up in a special duty assignment, working for a Lt Col who had been the ACC program manager for Compass Call and ABCCC. He probably held the record for serving on the TAC and ACC staff (almost eight years) and told me the Air Force tried to kill ABCCC every year he ran the program. He was usually able to preserve the program by making calls to JSOC, XVIII Abn Corps and the Marines. That would be followed by a three or four-star from one of those organizations calling their counterpart at Langley and asking them if they had lost their minds (usually in less polite terms). Unfortunately, ACC eventually sold their customers on the notion that JSTARS and AWACS could handle the mission.

I retired about the same time as the inactivation of the 42nd ACCS. Never heard what the Army, Marines and special ops community thought of the Air Force's "decision" as they pushed into Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's interesting that JSTARS replacement will be mounted in a business jet, and that program is far more expensive than ABCCC ever was. For a fraction of the cost, they could digitize the capsule/systems and put it in a similar platform, or simply rework the capsule and place it in a C-130J. Sadly, that will never happen.

Donald Watkins said...

I just read the other day while looking up our squadron patch and found out that a unit from JSTARS a E-8 aircraft is now 7th EACCS and performing the function of ABCCC flying out of QATAR. It's the 7th EXPEDITIONARY AIRBORNE BATTLEFIELD COMMAND AND CONTROL SQUADRON. Who knew. And they are part of the old/new ABCCC ASSOCIATION. It's sad that they split from us after the first reunion in Biloxi.