Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Farewell to a Warrior

Airmen at Ramstein AB, Germany said goodbye to a legend on Wednesday.

With a farewell spray from base fire trucks and salutes from aircrews and maintenance personnel, one of the Air Force’s most revered C-130s taxied out for a final flight.

The vintage “Herk,” tail number 63-7865, is leaving active service. Wednesday marked its departure from Ramstein, as the airlifter headed for the USAF “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona and a well-deserved retirement.

While the C-130E logged thousands of sorties and flying hours during its long career, it is best remembered at the only Herk—and quite possibly the only military aircraft—to receive an honorary Purple Heart, for “wounds” received in Vietnam.

Reporter Scott Schonauer of Stars and Stripes explains:

A plaque on the flight deck tells the story:

On June 1, 1972, the plane took a mortar round through the No. 3 engine while parked on the tarmac at Kontum Air Base. A maintenance team changed out the engine, but the new one failed to start. Pilots had to force the plane to take off with only three engines under "heavy mortar attack," the citation reads.

The aircraft was hit with several more mortar rounds during takeoff, puncturing the wings and damaging the other engines. The plane could climb to only 1,000 feet but made an emergency landing at Plieku Air Base, where mechanics determined it needed two new wings and four new engines.

After receiving the repairs, the plane continued to serve in the Pacific region. It later arrived at Ramstein Air Base, where it became an airlift workhorse. The wing last deployed 7865 to the Persian Gulf region last year. The aircraft flew its last combat mission on Nov. 13, ferrying cargo and troops around Iraq.

Despite its advanced age, 63-7865 earned a reputation as a reliable aircraft. SSgt Ryan Shallenberger, a crew chief who has worked on the airplane, reports that it flew more hours than any of the unit’s C-130s during a recent deployment to the Persian Gulf. The aircraft flew its last combat mission last November, hauling troops and cargo in Iraq.

Before arriving at Ramstein, the C-130 was a workhorse in the Pacific for years, remaining in that theater after its service in Vietnam. The “decorated” airlifter is one of five aging C-130Es being retired from Ramstein’s 86th Airlift Wing. They will be replaced by the new “J-model” Hercules, which will arrive next spring.

As the Viet Cong discovered back in 1972, Lockheed built ‘em tough. That’s one reason that so many of us have a soft spot for the Herk. There was—and is—nothing like the rumble of those Allisons, and the knowledge that the plane will bring you home, again and again.

Equally remarkable is the amount of service rendered by these aircraft to the Air Force—and the taxpayer. During my days as a C-130 crew member, I took part in a milestone mission for another member of the fleet. On a sunny day in September 1993, we took a 62-tail number Herk over the 30,000 hour mark.

That particular aircraft—which was modified for a battle management role—remained in service for almost another decade, until its unit was inactivated.

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