Observation Deck

Herculean History

Historical review of the Lockheed L-100 aircraft

A significant aviation anniversary occurs on August 23, 2014; it will have been 60 years since the first flight of the legendary Lockheed Hercules aircraft as of that date. This year has already witnessed another significant 60th anniversary flight on July 15, that of the 367-80 prototype of the Boeing 707. While the Boeing product beat the Lockheed to the skies by over a month, the “Herc” has a distinction that the 707 (and the closely-related C/KC-135) cannot match: it’s still in production now.

Indeed, more than 2500 have been ordered to date, according to Lockheed Martin’s website, with 2,471 deliveries as of July of this year. Not to brag, but LM notes that “Since its debut, the C-130 Hercules has exhibited a combination of rugged tenacity, unmatched flexibility and continuous innovation that continue to make it the global airlifter choice”. A particular distinction not shared by many aircraft types is the fact that it has operated from all seven continents, including Antarctica.

OK, so what does this have to do with the world of airlines? While not widely noticed in many quarters of the air transport world, there is a civil variant of the Hercules, the L-100. To date, there have been 115 delivered, with 55 still in service globally. In 1959, both Pan American and all-cargo carrier Slick Airways had ordered what was initially termed a “Super” Hercules for airline freighter services. These were later cancelled, which led to the development of the present L-100.

A prototype was built, and first flew on April 20, 1964. Type certification occurred in February 1965, with first delivery (out of an initial group of 21 aircraft) to Continental Air Services in September of 1965. The initial aircraft was leased briefly to Alaska Airlines, and then returned to its Marietta, Georgia birthplace to be “stretched” into the longer L-100-20 model. This provided more cubic capacity, which was desirable for most airlines, whose loads were typically not as heavy as those of the military.

A number of customers from locations around the world, acquired the new civil freight type, and placed it into service during the 1960s. While many were ‘real’ airlines, there are also were a number of L-100s delivered to governmental agencies in a variety of countries outside the U.S. (which, of course, has long been the largest operator of the C-130) for a variety of government-sponsored but non-military duties. Indonesia even converted two of its aircraft to haul passengers, as part of the country’s Transmigration program, which required the installation of a modest number of additional windows in the fuselage.

Both Alaska Airlines (where the prototype aircraft was leased for a demonstration in 1965) and Delta, also based in the Atlanta metropolitan area, like Lockheed-Georgia, where the Hercules family was built, acquired L-100s in 1966. Delta replaced its fleet of C-46 piston-engined freighters with the Hercs; don’t let anyone try to talk you into the oft-repeated story that DL never acquired turboprops new from the manufacturer! Interestingly, all of the Delta aircraft were later stretched to the Dash 20 model; what had been Delta ship 301 was later converted to the Dash 30 model (a further stretch) after being sold to Saturn.

More specialized U.S. cargo operators Airlift, Alaska International, Saturn (later merged into Trans International Airlines) and Southern Air Transport also acquired L-100s. Pacific Western of Canada was another North American airline customer. During the 1980s, American experimented with using the L-100 as a feeder aircraft from Caribbean points to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in conjunction with its fleet of 747 freighters, but the aircraft were operated by Transamerica, the successor to Trans International.

Eventually, the L-100-30 became the standard, with the last one being delivered in 1992. Over the years, Lockheed looked at a number of different variants, including the L-100-50. This “Super-Stretched” version was targeted at The Flying Tiger Line, then the largest U.S. scheduled service all-cargo airline, but this did not come to fruition. Neither did a twin-engine version, the L-400. A proposed 260 inch stretch of the L-100-30 was looked at seriously in the early 1980s, but didn’t make it to market, either.

However, after a hiatus of many years, it now appears that there will again be newly-built airline Hercs. On July 16, the ASL Aviation Group, based in Dublin, Ireland, announced that it had signed an LOI (Letter of Intent) to order up to ten LM-100J commercial freighters (based on the current production ‘J’ model of the C-130). These are intended to replace the nine L-100s at ASL’s subsidiary SAFAIR, in South Africa. Thus, it looks very likely that there will be L-100s flying on the 70th and 80th anniversaries of the C-130’s first flight.

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