The UK’s long history as an operator of the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules will all but come to an end on 17 June when the Royal Air Force (RAF) performs its final mission with the type.
Consisting of a three-ship fly-past as part of the King’s Birthday celebrations, the sortie will be a bittersweet moment ahead of the official retirement of the RAF’s remaining J-model aircraft on 30 June.
Defence officials announced in 2021’s Integrated Review that the 15-strong C-130J fleet would be retired by 2023 due to cost savings, with operations transitioning to the Airbus Defence & Space A400M. That date was subsequently extended until end-June due to availability issues with the European type.
Group Captain Gareth Burdett, Commander Air Wing – Air Mobility, says just six Hercules remain in RAF service. Those already withdrawn from use have been relocated to Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge where they are being prepared for sale.
Although concerns had been raised at the A400M’s ability to take on all the missions performed by the smaller C-130J, Burdett says the Atlas has risen to the challenge.
“There will be some capability gaps in very niche areas, all of the capability improvements have been significantly accelerated since the decision to sunset the Hercules was taken.
“Many have been brought forward by a number of years and the most critical capabilities have had the gap eradicated.”
He cites the A400M’s better range and payload over the C-130J, and its short-runway performance, as key attributes for end-users.
“What our customers are saying is that they appreciate the benefits and enhancements the A400M can bring over the C-130 in almost every regard that enables them to deliver their mission more effectively,” he says.
Reliability and availability have been a concern for all users of the A400M, with the type’s Europrop TP400 engines posing a particular issue.
Burdett says the situation has improved thanks to joint efforts by Airbus Defence & Space and the Ministry of Defence, adding: “While we are yet to see the full benefit that their brochure promised, certainly we are seeing a stable and useable amount of aircraft that reflects the availability we’d expect from other [transport aircraft] fleets.”
Cirium fleet data shows the RAF as operating 21 A400Ms; a 22nd and final example will be delivered by the end of the month, adds Burdett.
Burdett, who is qualified on the C-130, has responsibility for the RAF’s Brize Norton-based transport fleet which includes the A400M, A330 Voyager multi-role tanker transport, and Boeing C-17.
The UK has been a C-130 operator since the mid-1960s, taking delivery of its latest J-model examples from 1999.