The U.S. Air Force Thought About Bringing Back This Crazy C-130
Rocket-powered plane might've made a comeback
While V-22 Ospreys can fly as fast as an normal airplane and land like a helicopter, the unique tilt-rotor aircraft have relatively little space for troops, cargo and fuel. Which led the U.S. Air Force to think about reviving plans for a radically modified C-130 Hercules transport.
A C-130 that blasts into the air with rockets.
In January 2013, the Air Force’s top special operations headquarters cooked up a set of requirements for a new specialized cargo plane. The Mobility Requirements Branch proposed an all new aircraft, as well as a modified Hercules.
“The proposal … stemmed from the desire to have an enhanced short take-off/landing (STOL) capable … platform capable of carrying larger loads then the CV-22,” the Air Force Special Operations Command’s annual history for 2013 stated.
War Is Boring obtained a heavily redacted copy of the historical review via the Freedom of Information Act.
First nicknamed New Magic and then Super Sport, the project borrowed heavily from a design — codenamed Credible Sport — that the Air Force developed more than three decades earlier.
In 1980, the Pentagon designed Credible Sport to help rescue American hostages in Iran. An earlier rescue attempt involving helicopters had failed disastrously in the Iranian desert, killing eight U.S. military personnel.
This modified C-130 had dozens of rocket motors that, at least in theory, would have allowed it to land safely inside a soccer stadium and take off again. However, one of the program’s test planes crashed and burst into flames during takeoff.
The Air Force never deployed Credible Sport. A similar fate befell the more recent — and costly and time-consuming — Super Sport C-130.
Both planes had a lot in common. Like its predecessor, Super Sport was an Air Force attempt to move more commandos farther. The vertical-lift Osprey wasn’t cutting it.
After more than a decade of teething troubles, the Air Force got its first Ospreys in 2000. Since then, the flying branch’s commandos have made good use of the unique aircraft. “The CV-22s are going to revolutionize,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel told the historians writing their annual summary. “These things can go three times as fast and three times as far as a helicopter.”
Compared to older choppers, the tilt-rotors put up some impressive numbers. The Osprey’s predecessor, the MH-53 helicopter, topped out at 165 miles per hour under the best conditions. A CV-22 can cruise at nearly twice that speed.
“So I’m sitting in a helicopter down in the bottom of Somalia, and someone just got hurt and you’re up at the top,” Fiel continued. “[It’s like] I’m going up I-95 at 90 miles an hour trying to get from Jacksonville to Boston and you’re bleeding.”
As Fiel then pointed out, the Air Force had encountered almost this exact situation months earlier. In December 2012, three CV-22s carrying Navy SEALs on a rescue mission took ground fire while heading toward Bor, South Sudan. Four elite sailors were wounded and one almost bled out as the pilots heroically raced to make an emergency landing in neighboring Uganda. Thanks in no small part to the Ospreys’ speed, everyone survived.
However, the incident highlighted the Osprey’s limitations. Without the help of MC-130P Combat Shadow tankers rushing in from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, at least one of the tilt-rotors would have definitely crashed.
Even without the leaking fuel lines, the CV-22s needed to refuel just to make the nearly 2,000-mile round trip from Camp Lemonnier to Bor and back in the first place. The Ospreys have a maximum range of approximately half that distance with an extra fuel tank installed, according to the official Air Force fact sheet.
On top of that, each Osprey can only carry 24 troops seated – 32 if everyone stands – or 10,000 pounds of appropriately-sized cargo. With their two massive propellers, the little planes have a hard time hiding from radars and human ears.
By comparison, the new, specialized MC-130J transports can accommodate three times as many troops or four times as much cargo. The Commando II can lug those loads three times farther and fly faster.
Enter Super Sport.
AFSOC had wanted the modified C-130s be able clear a 50 foot obstacle in less than 2000 feet while carrying 20,000 pounds from an unimproved surface, a public affairs officer with the command told War Is Boring in an Email. The aerial commandos envisioned the special planes flying straight to the target from their home bases or stopping somewhere along the way so troops in the field could install the new equipment, the official added.
“Programmers evaluated various aerodynamic, engine, flight control, propeller and weight reduction proposals and created a list of low, medium and high cost options,” the historical review stated. With the exception of the NP2000 propeller upgrade, AFSOC had redacted the list of modifications and performance specifications in the annual history.
Already more than a decade old in 2013, the eight-bladed Hamilton Sundstrand NP2000s were a far advanced design compared to the MC-130J’s six-bladed units or the old four-bladed propellers on older MC-130H Combat Talon IIs. The Air Force and contractor Lockheed Martin first considered adding the new feature to members of the Hercules family bound for Antarctica.
The flying branch uses specially configured LC-130Hs to support America’s research sites on the southern continent. The planes needed Jet Assisted Take Off rockets – similar to those used in the Credible Sport program – to help blast into the air.
“If this propeller does what it is supposed to do then it would produce additional thrust and reduce the need for those JATO bottles or eliminate them completely,” Air Force Maj. C.B. Cain, a C-130 flight commander, told the service’s reporters in 2010.
“Instead of four similar airfoil blades pounding around up there, you have these eight highly tuned blades that make it smoother with less vibration.”
By using aircraft it already had or was planning to buy, the Air Force expected to keep costs to a minimum. Plus, the flying branch figured it would be faster to modify C-130s than craft a new, purpose-built “Low Signature Mobility Aircraft.”
With the NP2000s and other changes, the Air Force estimated the new Super Sport project could cost almost $100 million. That would pay for a proposed fleet of 10 special planes modified from either existing Combat Talon II or up-coming Commando II airframes.
“Of note, regardless if the MC-130H would be chosen or not, programmers recommended fitting the entire Combat Talon II fleet with the eight-blade NP2000 propeller,” the annual history added.
Four months after running the numbers, the Air Force decided not to go forward with Super Sport. As it stands now, the flying branch has not added the NP2000s to either the LC-130Hs or MC-130Hs, either.
“At this time, AFSOC is not actively engaged in development of new requirements for a short takeoff and landing variant of the MC-130,” the public affairs official said. “The last analysis was completed in April 2013, and the documents were never validated as formal AFSOC requirements.”
Still, despite the loss of the Credible Sport aircraft in a fiery crash more than 30 years ago, the Air Force is clearly keeping the concept tucked away in case the need arises again.