A U.S. Air Force C–130H Hercules, serial number 74-1660, landed at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland in September 2019, en route to its final assignment at an Air Force medical testing facility at nearby Fort Detrick. It was only supposed to be on the field for a few weeks before being towed across town, but contracting and other delays kept it there until March 14 (see “End of the Line,” below). On and off over what became a six-month visit, a camera AOPA Pilot mounted in the tower atop the airport’s administration building took pictures, day and night, at intervals averaging 6 minutes. It shot through sunshine, clouds, and the dark of night; rain, fog, and snow.
During six months at the Frederick Municipal Airport, C–130H 74-1660 lost its props and engines; it encountered rain, snow, fog, and countless passing aircraft; then left in the middle of the night to begin its final chapter.Images captured the recurring march of the Hercules’ shadow from the west toward the east as the sun arched across the sky. Some mornings ground fog would rise, dampening the Herc, and then fall. Occasionally at night its fuselage would be illuminated by the lights of a taxiing aircraft, or a patrolling police cruiser. Usually unnoticed during the day, lights of westbound airliners departing Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport painted their westbound flight paths.
A farmer fertilizes and, later, harvests crops from field across the airport. In the distance, a hawk makes lazy circles in the sky. Some evenings, a herd of deer grazes its way across that field. Trooper 3, the Maryland State Police helicopter based at Frederick, practices rescue hoists. From time to time a pilot clicks his or her mic, causing the runway and taxiway lights to brighten—or dim.
As cycles of twilight settle over the ramp, lights flicker on in homes comprising a subdivision east of the airport and as the night deepens, they twinkle out as their residents retire—only to blink on again in the morning, as sunrise draws near. The Hercules’ unlocked rudder blows back and forth with the wind.
All the while airplanes and helicopters come and go, through moments in time at the airport.
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You seldom hear the command “Pull chocks” on a city street, miles from the nearest airport. But the phrase was shouted several times during the early morning hours of Saturday, March 14, as a retired U.S. Air Force C–130H Hercules was pulled—on its own wheels—some 7.5 miles around Frederick, Maryland, to its final assignment.
The four-engine Air Force turboprop transport, built in 1974, was flown into Frederick Municipal Airport in September 2019. In October the engines and propellers were removed and shipped to an Air Force depot. It languished until disassembly of the fuselage began in mid-February. The outer wing sections, vertical and horizontal stabilizers, and other parts were removed to make the Hercules both smaller and lighter for its final journey. The aircraft, with a maximum takeoff weight of 155,000 pounds, still weighed more than 50,000 pounds for the move.
Finally, it was towed in the middle of the night to the Air Force Medical Evaluation Support Activity (AFMESA), which operates a testing facility on Fort Detrick—a U.S. Army Medical Command garrison that serves as a center for biological research. AFMESA’s mission, testing medical technology and devices to ensure they meet the military’s needs and can survive the rigors of deployment, is unique within the U.S. military. The AFMESA testing site already includes a complete 10-bed Expeditionary Medical Support Hospital, a 44,000-square-foot test pad, and other testing facilities that simulate many of the conditions medical airmen experience in the field.
At AFMESA the Hercules will be reassembled and used to test equipment and procedures. A speaker system will be installed to replicate the sounds usually experienced in a C–130, both in flight and on the ground.
The move began at 2 a.m., following a circuitous route that had been carefully evaluated for sufficient clearance. It was unusual because the airplane was being moved on its own wheels, explained Charles White of moving contractor Whites Aircraft Salvage and Parts. He has moved and dismantled many large aircraft, including more than 40 C–130s, some of which have been repurposed to train paratroopers or loadmasters. “It’s good to reuse them,” he said, adding that in this case the relatively short distance and clearance issues made towing the Hercules practical.
74-1660’s journey across town was unusual because the aircraft was moved on its own wheels.The aircraft traveled as fast as 10 to 20 mph on open stretches of road but a very tight, descending exit ramp from U.S. 15 South to Rosemont Avenue—identified early on as the most challenging segment of the journey for the 97-foot, 9-inch-long fuselage—took an hour and a half to negotiate. A second truck was connected to the rear of the Hercules with safety chains to provide stopping power, and White had two people in the aircraft itself—one person in the pilot’s seat to apply the brakes if necessary, and an observer riding in the roof hatch to monitor clearances. Only enough hydraulic pressure remained in the system to apply the brakes six times, White said. Especially on the steep grade, chocks were used to ensure the Hercules didn’t move unintentionally.
Almost 3.5 hours after leaving the airport, the caravan reached the gate to Fort Detrick’s Area B, where AFMESA is located. There, the movers reconfigured to pull the Hercules backwards onto the base, so it could more easily be positioned in its final parking spot. To steer the hulking airplane through the narrow gate, crew manhandled the heavy towbar. The transport rolled onto the Army installation at 6:27 a.m.
The C–130H logged more than 24,000 flight hours. It entered service with the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Evelio Gonzalez of Bolivia, North Carolina, who flew 74-1660 several times. The first two flights, as co-pilot, were “locals” from Dyess. “Back then a local was a five-hour mission, where we would fly three low-level routes, in formation, to an airdrop followed by 30 to 45 minutes of short-field landings.”
Later, in early 1984, Gonzalez flew the ship as aircraft commander in Europe. “My squadron was at RAF Mildenhall as part of a 65-day rotation. Squadrons would go on rotation about every 14 months.”
Information available online revealed that the Hercules also was assigned to Yokota Air Base in Japan, and that its duties took it to locations including Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Ben Gurion Airport near Lod, Israel.
It most recently served with the Ohio Air National Guard, based at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport in Mansfield, Ohio. It was named Spirit of Clear Fork Valley, honoring an area of southern Richland County, Ohio, that is home to a number of members of its previous unit, the 179th Airlift Wing.
However, it’s not the first C–130 to wear that name. On October 16, 2014, a Hercules with serial number 81-0629 was dedicated Spirit of Clear Fork Valley. By summer 2019, however, that aircraft had been transferred to the 189th Airlift Wing in Little Rock, Arkansas. The aircraft delivered to Maryland was 74-1660—which carried in its cockpit a set of window covers made by Bruce’s Custom Covers embroidered with ship number 629, clearly a holdover from the first aircraft to carry that name. —MC