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December 04, 2006

End of an era

The 146th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard marked the end of an era with the last flight of their C-130E Hercules transports on Saturday. I was on base for the weekend drill and was in the JAG shop when we heard the two planes overhead. I ran outside with another officer, just in time to see one of the transports go roaring by, not more than 100 feet above the Ops building, in about a 60-degree bank.

We walked out to the flight line, where a crowd -- and a military marching band -- waited for the two veterans to land and disgorge their payload of soon-to-be obsolescent crew members.

Y'see, the E models were throwbacks to the old Air Force, with cable-actuated control surfaces and analog dials covering the control panels; their late-1940's design heritage was apparent from the moment you entered the flight deck. The new planes, the C-130J models, are bigger -- with an extended fuselauge -- as well as the ability to fly faster and farther, thanks in part to the distinctive curved blades of their high-efficiency props. But the most significant upgrade on the new Js can be seen when you settle into the pilot's seat: the dizzying array of dials have been replaced by multi-function displays, just like on fighters. Electronics abound, and fly-by-wire has replaced pulleys and cables with silicon chips and servos.

The use of computers to monitor and control the plane, as well as the integration of military-grade GPS equipment means that the number of highly-trained flightdeck crewmembers needed to operate the planes has been cut by 50 percent: Navigators and Flight Engineers have gone the way of the elevator operator.

In the old days, it took a skilled engineer to keep four engines running in synch, and the pilots were too busy flying the plane to troubleshoot the mechanical problems that invariably cropped up. And then there was the navigator, using his charts and sextant, Loran-C and navigational beacons to ensure the planes arrived at their destinations safely, without recreating the exploits of Wrongway Corrigan -- or charting a course into the side of a mountain range.

No more. And so Saturday's flight was a bittersweet one on the flightdecks; these professionals are no longer needed to complete the mission.

The planes landed, then slowly taxied toward us, passing through a triumphal -- and fleeting -- arch, provided by the two firepumpers on the tarmac. They parked at right-angles to each other, one plane flying the U.S. flag from the cockpit, the other the California Bear flag, both snapping-to in the stiff, 30-knot Santa Ana winds. The groundcrew gave the signal and the engines shut down, the big four-bladed props spinning to a halt.

The flightcrew emerged from the planes and gathered beneath one wing, spraying each other with champagne -- between sips, of course -- confident that the stray tear would go unnoticed amidst all the bubbly and bonhomie.

One of the pilots gave a gloriously politically incorrect quote to the paper, one that wouldn't have been out of place coming from a grizzled veteran of the Eighth Air Force after finishing a tour of duty bombing the Krauts in his trusty B-17.

"It's like making love to a woman," said Lt. Col. Brian Rourke after he flew the plane for his last time. "There are things they like and don't like, and when you get to know what they like, it really performs."

I'll bet the Public Affairs Officer crapped his britches over that one, but dammit, that's how pilots are supposed to sound.

The two planes that made the final flight for the Guard were older than most of their crews; commissioned in 1960, they were transferred to the 146th in the mid-70s, and have flown more than 30 years-worth of missions ferrying troops to combat zones; carrying supplies to disaster areas; and fighting fires from the air.

Their service -- planes and crew -- was invaluable, and they'll be missed.

Posted by Mike Lief at December 4, 2006 12:21 PM | TrackBack


One day human pilots will be irrelevant. Computer driven crafts will be smaller, lighter, faster, and more lethal. Imagine a day when a small drone can hunt for weeks at a time without landing and then move in for a precise kill. Drone technology will become so advanced that the Predator will look about as high-tech as a paper airplane made by a small child.

Posted by: Mark at December 4, 2006 08:03 PM

The retired airplane that really rocked the block so much that I can hardly believe we don't use it any more is the SR-71.

Posted by: Anwyn at December 4, 2006 08:54 PM

I saw these planes flying over the Conejo on Saturday while I was out riding. It looked big and heavy enough to fall out of the sky. If you don't get out and look at the sky once in a while, it's amazing what you miss.

Posted by: Thin Ice, Sr. at December 4, 2006 09:43 PM

Yes, the SR-71 was quite an aircraft. Kelly Johnson is sorely missed. (Love the airman's quote!)

Posted by: jim at December 5, 2006 08:40 AM

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