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Landing a Cargo Plane on a Postage Stamp

Introduction By NHF Membership Director, Sean Bland

I have always been fascinated with the C-130 Airplane – it is a tough, rugged, and no-nonsense aircraft. I am confident that some of my fascination with the vehicle was at least unconsciously imparted to me from my numerous ‘Space A” flights as a child across the Northern Atlantic, traversing between my father’s duty station and the States. My mother, who certainly remembers some of these flights, has a much different opinion of them and the plane, thanks in no small part to the aircraft’s “restroom facility” (or, rather, lack thereof).

The C-130 has a long and storied history, predominantly with service in the United States Air Force, however it also continues to be used by the Marine Corps to this day. It is also used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In all of its many years of service, the story below still stands as a unique testament to this remarkable plane’s versatility, and the bravery of Naval Aviators willing to push their aircraft to the absolute limits.

C-130 Hercules Test Landings

By NHF Intern Tim Davidson

On October 30, 1963, fifty-six years ago this week, Lieutenant James H. Flatley III and his fellow crew members, Lieutenant Commander W.W. Stovall and ADR-1 Ed Brennan, successfully landed a four-engine C-130 Hercules on the carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59), five hundred miles off the coast of Boston. The aircraft became the largest and heaviest to ever conduct such a landing. This landing was the result of a Chief of Naval Operations directive to test the feasibility of a “Super-COD” (Carrier Onboard Delivery). No other aircraft with such a great carrying-capacity had the range to resupply an aircraft carrier mid-ocean, and thus it was hypothesized that it could greatly improve the Navy’s method of resupplying carriers.

The plane, a KC-130F refueler transport borrowed from the USMC made not one, but 29 touch-and-go landings, as well as 21 unarrested full-stop landings, plus 21 unassisted takeoffs on the Forrestal’s runway. The heaviest load tested was 121,000 pounds. The first landings, made on the 30th of October, were done into a 46.1 mph headwind. The aircraft was lightly modified with an improved anti-skid braking system and a smaller nose-landing gear orifice. The tests proved surprisingly successful. The crew even managed to bring the C-130 and her 85,000-pound cargo to a complete stop using only 267 feet of runway. Even at its greatest payload the plane used just 745 feet for takeoff and 460 feet for landing. With each takeoff and landing the aircraft had hundreds of feet to spare, according to Lockheed’ Martin’s Ted Limmer, who was present for some of the landings. Jerry Daugherty, the carrier’s landing signal officer, guided Flatley and the crew as they landed. The plane’s immense wingspan barely missed the Forrestal’s control tower as it followed the dotted white line, seen in the first photo above. Remarkably, none of the landings required assistance from mechanical carrier gear. After these landings, the aircraft was painted with the sign “LOOK MA, NO HOOK.”

The USS Forrestal (CV-59), so named for Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, was built in 1952 and commissioned in 1955. As the first in a new class of “supercarriers,” Forrestal surpassed the Japanese WWII carrier Shinano as the largest yet constructed. She was the first carrier ever built by the United States to support jet aircraft. The carrier was quite large, but still not big enough for the C-130 to fit into its elevators or hangars. The carrier saw a great deal of action in the Cold War, from Brazil to Vietnam to the Mediterranean. However, she suffered a number of major fires, including a devastating fire in July 1967 caused by a Zuni rocket misfire, which led to the deaths of 134 people and injured 161. She was decommissioned in 1993 and eventually scrapped in 2015.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was designed in 1954 to transport troop, perform medevac, and transport cargo. The aircraft entered service with the United States in 1956 and is now the longest continuously produced aircraft in use. There are more than forty variants of the Hercules, and the plane has seen a wide range of utilization: from serving as a gunship, to completing aerial refueling, airborne assault, search and rescue, firefighting, and scientific research and weather reconnaissance. The Hercules even deployed to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, and areas of Texas devastated by Hurricane Harvey with mosquito control spray.
When the test landings aboard the Forrestal were completed in November, the Navy concluded that the C-130 Hercules was more than capable of making 25,000 pound deliveries 2,500 miles and land on an aircraft carrier. Ultimately, however, the Navy still abandoned the idea because they deemed it too difficult for regular resupply operations, instead opting for smaller and lighter COD aircraft. The Hercules used in the test landings, BuNo 149798, was retired to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, FL in May 2003 (see their listing below).

Lieutenant Flatley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his achievements in these test landings. During his long and illustrious Naval career Lt. James H. Flatley III also earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Combat “V,” the Air Medal (22 of them), and a second Distinguished Flying Cross, finally being inducted into the U.S. Naval Aviation Carrier Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame. Flatley had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1956, and eventually commanded the USS Saratoga, where he completed more than 1,500 arrested landings in an F-4 Phantom. He retired in 1987 as a Rear Admiral.

Flatley’s distinguished service was part of a family tradition – his father, Vice Admiral James H. Flatley, Jr., had also served a career as a Naval Aviator, and was honored by the naming of the USS Flatley (FFG-21). Vice Admiral Flatley’s grandsons also served in the Navy, cementing a family legacy of service at sea.

Rear Admiral James Flatley’s efforts to land a C-130 on an aircraft carrier serve as a reminder that taking risks and trying new strategies are invaluable to fostering improvement, whether in the military specifically or in life in general. Only by trying new things can genuine progress be made, and we all do well to remember that lesson.

Footage of some of the landings filmed from the deck of the Forrestal in November 1963

Find below our sources for this week’s Thursday Tidings:

  • YouTube video courtesy of PatriotsPoint
  • Defense Aviation. “C-130 Hercules Lands on Aircraft Carrier.” 2 June 2007.
  • Aviation Zone. “C-130 Hercules Lands on U.S.S. Forrestal.”

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