How do you even start to understand something unless you have done it?
I had always heard from the lucky few who had the chance for a ride, that it was awesome, but one ride was enough. How could that be?
The Royal Australian Air Force have been using different models of the C-130 Hercules for over 50 years now, and they have been the workhorse of the RAAF. They are the go to aircraft for carrying out various roles in carrying outsized loads, and being a great aircraft. I wondered why people would say that “One ride” is enough. When I grew up I lived in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and after many years seeing them fly low over my house I always dreamed about what it would be like to fly on a Herc.
Finally after dreaming about what kind of experience it would be like to have a flight on one as a kid, I got my chance to find out.
Various Squadrons flew the Alpha, Echo, Hotel, and Juliet models of the venerable C-130, but 37 Squadron (37SQN) based at RAAF Base Richmond have been working hard now for many years as the last squadron to operate C-130J-30 model.
Along with various other Australian Defence Force (ADF) units these aircraft were participating in a fly over around the country to support the welcoming home of ADF service members from the Middle East that deployed as part of “Operation Slipper”. 37 SQN used the chance for some long training flights over western NSW, down to Canberra, the nation’s capital and back to RAAF Base Richmond in preparation for that event that was going to be held on the 21st of March. It was also an opportunity to say thank you to all the people that were part of companies who were tasked with some major upgrades to the C-130J undertaken recently. One example of the upgrades is the added capability of being able to use SATCOM and therefore being able to communicate with HQ from anywhere in the world.
I arrived at Richmond eager and excited for what was in store. It was a nice warm day at Richmond but I knew it was going to be above 32c out west and at low level that means only one thing “it’s going to be one of those cracker flight’s” ……..YES!
For the proceedings of the day the people who were lucky enough to be on these flights were briefed by RAAF Air Mobility Group and 37SQN members. The plan involved three pairs of C-130J’s taking off 15-20 min apart and making their own way to a meeting point that was over an hour from take-off. Then dropping down to a tactical flight level of between 75-150m above the ground. Then all six Hercules would head to the nation’s capital, Canberra, for a fly over and to make a phone call on the new upgraded SATCOM to the “Big Boss”. Then flying low and hard all the way back to Richmond.
Each Hercules had 20 lucky people plus 6-10 RAAF members on board. My ride for the day was C-130J serial A94-466, and once all the brief’s had been completed, it was time to walk out on the apron and head to the waiting Hercules, climb aboard and go. Our flight was second to leave and after we rotated off the runway we quickly headed up over the Blue Mountains.
So many times growing up in the Blue Mountains I would be looking up at the Herc’s doing this very thing, but today it was my turn to look back down from the other side. We flew at a good height so we all could stand up and get some photos. Using my Nikon D800 and my Nikon 24-85mm 2.8f lens I tried to get any angle that proved I was in the Herc but due to heat haze it proved too hard to get anything. In less than 25min we were flying over my house which is a 3 hour drive from Richmond. At height it can be very hard to really know just how fast you are going but all that was about to change real fast.
Around the township of Dubbo it was time to hit the deck, time to get low and go fast. This move was a game changer and all of a sudden, what was just like any other flight went to a level none of the first timers expected. As our flight had all the media on board we had the chance to see and get photos and video of a practice air drop with everyone strapped in and the ramp down. I strapped myself into the last seat before the ramp. Very quickly it was ‘game on’ but due to being on the same side as the load master my view was restricted, but what a view. The Hercules behind us got close but due to the level of turbulence we didn’t keep the ramp down for long.
With everyone strapped in to the seats the flight was starting to take its toll on many of the passengers, just to even try to walk around the aircraft was becoming very hard for the few who considered it. I could see out one of the small windows sky, ground, sky and then ground again. The aircraft was just bucking from side to side and this is what a training mission was all about. Despite the rough ride, every now and then I could see another Hercules so I changed lenses quickly to my Nikon 80-200mm 2.8f, and thought I’d try and get some photo’s while we were cracking alongside one another.
I tried to look through the view finder but who was I kidding? One hit to the head makes you think about another idea. I locked my leg and arm into the webbing on the seat close to a window and set the camera up the best I could. I can’t really tell you just how hard it is to try and focus through a camera when the aircraft you are on is trying to slam you into the floor every 5-10 seconds. The Flight was taking its toll on most of the passengers by now, and it wasn’t long before I got the tap on the shoulder…. but I did last over 2 hours I’m proud to say. I can tell you its strange seeing many passengers not well and watching the few for whom this is their job just doing it so easily, one even closed his eyes for part of the flight!
The best seat in the aircraft is the jump seat and you get the best view in the house, plenty of air con and less chance of air sickness which meant it was a popular spot. With the flight getting closer to Sydney the rest of the media started getting ready for the ramp to lower as the plan was to do an air drop close to Richmond at their training drop zone. I saw this as my chance to get up front and what a move it was, it was so hard to really work out where we were but I was given a head set to listen in on the work load of the pilots.
I am still finding it hard to write the words on just how much really goes on up front and to think this has been going on the whole flight. Once I got my head around the action I started taking photos with the 24-85mm making sure the setup was good enough not to use the flash as this was the last place I wanted a flash going off and distracting the pilots. I could hear in the headset that the flight was looking out for a big storm around the drop zone, we flew around the outskirts west of Sydney waiting for the storm to pass so we could do the air drop but some days it’s not meant to be so I just had to ride it out in the jump seat up front till we landed and shut down the engines.
Getting off the flight it finally hit me that while I had accomplished my dream flight it was valuable training for the crews and they do this all the time so when the time comes for it they perform to their best ability.
While you are reading this article I’m sure a Hercules from 37SQN is flying a mission right now, especially in Vanuatu or in the Middle East as 37 SQN have been deployed to help deliver valuable supplies. The cargo these crews deliver saves lives! I can’t say enough how proud I am of the men and women that fly and support these mission’s. For anyone that think’s the transport role in flying is just flying here and there dropping off cargo…..your wrong!
This was the best things I have ever done, and I still can’t work out why anyone would say one ride is enough I can tell you right now I would have got straight back on the Hercules if 37 SQN had let me.