If success in the military aircraft business is measured in terms of how many users a plane has, how many missions it accomplishes, or how long it has been in continuous production, then the C-130 Hercules airlifter is hands down the most successful plane ever. The Air Force and prime contractor Lockheed Martin have invested for six straight decades in new technology aimed at keeping the C-130 relevant and reliable. The fruits of that investment are readily apparent in the newest version of the plane, the C-130J Super Hercules, which has 40% more range than earlier variants, 20% more speed, and can take off in only 60% of the runway distance previously required. Once airborne, it can climb faster and fly higher, making it a far more capable aircraft even though it looks very similar to past variants. The Air Force has figured out that it makes more sense to press ahead with buying additional “J” variants rather than overspending on modifications designed to keep aging legacy airlifters useful. Late this year, it will commit to buying 71 new Super Hercules (plus several more for the Marine Corps and Coast Guard) in a five-year production contract. This may be the first time ever that a military aircraft has remained in high demand 60 years after it debuted, a testament to the ruggedness and versatility of the original concept. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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