Lockheed Martin officially launched production on 5 October of the first C-130 Hercules acquired by the US Air Force to support search and rescue missions since the Vietnam War.
The ceremony inside Lockheed's Marietta production facility also marked the launch of a new C-130 variant tailored for special operations missions, which company officials hope could lead to dozens - if not hundreds - of new orders by domestic and foreign customers for the 55-year-old tactical airlifter.
The USAF plans to acquire 22 new HC/MC-130Js to begin replacing 78 HC-130s flown by search and rescue teams and 37 MC-130s operated by special forces. More orders are expected to follow as the USAF continues to renew the ageing fleet.
© Michael Balter MBAviation-Images
The new design boosts the C-130J's maximum take-off weight to 74,400kg (164,000lb) and the assault landing weight to 64,400kg. The heavier model also includes an advanced wing design that guarantees longer service life, which has become a major issue for the C-130E models that the C-130J replaces.
Lockheed has also adapted the C-130J production process for the new variant. The refuelling receptacle is produced in-line instead of as a post-production modification. That single change eliminates eight months of extra production time, saving $8 million in manufacturing costs per aircraft, Lockheed officials say.
Lockheed has also fitted a forward looking infrared (FLIR) turreted pod - the Raytheon multi-spectral targeting system (MTS-A) - to the airframe structure beneath the flightdeck. The company is investing internal funds to design a retractable turret that could extend the HC/MC-130J's mission radius.
Company officials have also disclosed internal plans to develop a new outer-mould line for the venerable airlifter that can accommodate more equipment for special operations missions. One design concept displayed publicly so far reveals an enlarged nose section and a wider cross-section for the fuselage.
Lockheed is in the midst of a major sales boom for the C-130J programme. The company is doubling annual production from 12 aircraft in 2008 to more than 24 aircraft in 2010. Lockheed will be building five different models of the C-130J simultaneously in 2010, including new HC/MC-130Js and KC-130Js, and C-130J-30s ordered by Canada, Qatar and India.