A workhorse for the Australian Defence Force, the C-130J Hercules aircraft has marked 20 years since entering service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

To celebrate the anniversary, a formation of Hercules aircraft took to the skies over RAAF Bases Glenbrook and Richmond in New South Wales.

The flight coincided with a reunion held by the No. 37 Squadron Association for past and present members of the C-130J workforce.

A RAAF C-130J Hercules aircraft, from No. 37 Squadron, taxies towards the apron at Hamid Karzai International Airport-North, Kabul, Afghanistan in 2015. Photo: Corporal David Cotton

In September 1999, the first of 12 Hercules transport aircraft was introduced to service with No. 37 Squadron at RAAF Base Richmond.

The fleet has amassed 137,000 flying hours over two decades, and is expected to continue flying to at least 2030.

Like past variants of the Hercules flown since December 1958, the RAAF uses the C-130J to carry personnel, cargo and equipment into semi-prepared airfields with little or no support infrastructure.

And, like its predecessors, it can also airdrop cargo and paratroops, fly aeromedical evacuation missions with sick or wounded patients and perform search and rescue duties at sea.

Group Captain Nicholas Hogan, the Officer Commanding No. 84 Wing, said the C-130J fleet had spent much of its time supporting the ADF on deployed operations.

“Defence’s operational tempo has been consistently high for the last 20 years so it’s hard to imagine a time when all 12 C-130Js were at home at once,” Group Captain Hogan said.

“The nature of No. 37 Squadron’s work with the C-130J is often short notice, dynamic in nature, and requiring flexibility in how they approach problems and execute their mission.

“Behind this workforce is a support network from Defence and industry that has helped sustain and develop the C-130J.”

A C-130J from Task Group 633.4 conducts an 'opstop' on an unsealed runway in Afghanistan during Operation Slipper in 2006. Photo: Wing Commander Bob Rodgers

Originally, the C-130J was intended as a strategic airlift replacement for the ageing C-130E fleet.

It differed from previous Hercules models by having more powerful and fuel-efficient engines, a longer fuselage that could carry more cargo and advanced avionics for navigation and management of aircraft systems.

Its introduction in 1999 coincided with the ADF facing an increase in operational deployments, including supporting peacekeeping forces in East Timor, followed by Afghanistan (in 2002) and Iraq (in 2003).

This higher tempo led the C-130J fleet to be modified to fly on tactical operations in 2004, allowing it to supplement the older C-130H Hercules already flying in that role.

The C-130J was fitted with self-protection systems, and No. 37 Squadron crews trained for airlift operations where they could come under threat of enemy fire.

From 2004 until 2008, the C-130J workforce rotated responsibility in the Middle East Region with the C-130Hs; since July 2008, the C-130J has been continuously deployed in theatre.

Airdrop pallets of humanitarian aid are lashed to the floor of a C-130J Hercules prior to their parachute delivery to Iraqi civilians in northern Iraq in 2014. Photo: Corporal Janine Fabre

In December 2006, Defence introduced the C-17A as a strategic airlifter, leaving the C-130J to be concentrated on tactical airlift missions.

That responsibility has kept the C-130J workforce busy throughout the Asia Pacific region, Group Captain Hogan said.

“When you look at airlift missions in the region, the C-130J has the right combination of range, payload and airfield access to support a number of Defence missions,” Group Captain Hogan said.

“As a case in point, in February 2019 we launched several C-130Js to the Northern Territory for a mission to evacuate remote communities in Groote Eylandt, which was being threatened by a cyclone.

“The workforce has likewise been called to support short-notice tasks with aeromedical evacuation for the Bali Bombings and hospital evacuations in Queensland.

“The crews are also well versed in conducting search and rescue efforts in the Southern Ocean, where they’ve often had to orbit overhead and direct rescue teams to a survivor’s dinghy.”

Throughout its lifetime, the RAAF’s C-130J have been supported by the Air Lift Systems Program Office (ALSPO) – part of the Department of Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group.

ALSPO is responsible for managing the fleet’s engineering and sustainment needs and works with Air Force to plan upgrades for the C-130J.

Some of these upgrades are driven by the demands of a 21st century working environment, including the evolution of the RAAF into a ‘Fifth Generation’ with the arrival of the F-35A Lightning II.

The C-130Js are now connected to the Link-16 battlespace network, allowing crews to share information with friendly aircraft on operations.

A satellite communications (SATCOM) antenna on each C-130J also allows crew and passengers access to global voice and data transfer.

One C-130J has received a Ka-Band SATCOM antenna that permits wideband data transfer, capable of supporting video livestreaming. Another five aircraft will be similarly equipped beginning in late 2019.

Other upgrades include improved aircraft self-protection systems, external fuel tanks on a select number of aircraft and the ability to airdrop GPS-guided cargo loads.

“The C-130J was an advanced aircraft when it was introduced in 1999, and these upgrades have kept it a very modern aircraft today,” Group Captain Hogan said.

“Defence and Industry are finding new ways to apply technology to this airframe, and some of these applications were difficult to imagine 20 years ago.

“When you consider the C-130J has life ahead of it in the RAAF, it’s exciting to consider what capability and missions will support in the future.”