When an American aircraft goes down, be it over a remote training ground or behind enemy lines, the US Air Force’s crack teams of pararescue forces jump into action. The new HC-130J Combat King II is the plane that delivers them when Apaches can’t, even into active combat zones.
The $US66 million 130J, built by Lockheed Martin, is a variant of the venerable C-130 transport plane and an recapitalised (upgraded) edition of the original Combat King, the HC-130P/N. As the USAF’s only dedicated fixed-wing personnel recovery platform, it’s been designed specifically for extended-range search and rescue (SAR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) in hostile environs.
This can include delivering expeditionary forces, recovering personnel, helicopter air-to-air refueling, and landing to act as a forward area petrol station. What’s more, the aircraft can also be used in humanitarian missions such as disaster response, aeromedical evacuation, and noncombatant evacuation. The US Coast Guard also employs it for SAR operations at sea for both command and control, and as a flying petrol station for search helicopters, as seen in the image above. Interestingly, the Combat King II can itself be refueled in midair by another tanker plane if the need arises.
The Combat King II is roughly the same size as the original Hercules C-130, measuring nearly 30m long and nearly 12m tall with a wingspan of 40m. The plane itself weighs 40,000kg and can carry and additional 16,000kg of cargo and just over 34,000 litres of fuel. A quartet of 4591HP Four Rolls Royce AE2100D3 turboprop engines allow the Combat King to reach speeds of 316 knots, heights of 10,000m, and ranges of more than 6400km. And with midair refuellings, the Combat King II can stay aloft practically indefinitely.
Getting a plane this big behind enemy lines unnoticed is no small feat for the craft’s three officers and two enlisted loadmasters. Missions typically occur at night at low to medium altitudes to avoid radar detection with the crew using either the integrated FLIR system or don night vision goggles to navigate the blacked out plane over occupied territory. The 130J is equipped with radar and missile warning receivers to detect incoming threats and, if those activate, chaff and flare dispensers to counter incoming threats.
Lockheed has been developing the 130J for the past few years ,with the plane’s first successful test flight coming in July of 2010 and the first aircraft delivery to the USAF occurring in September of the same year. The Air Force performed its own Initial Operational Capability (IOC) testing throughout 2012 and, once completed, began delivering 130Js to Air Combat Commands around the country. In all, the USAF plans to purchase 78 of the HC-130Js for everyone from the Coast Guard to the Special Forces.