Written for CNN Travel – August 2, 2018
At over 110 feet long and with a wingspan of more than 130 feet, the Lockheed Martin LM-100J is a very big airplane.
The civilian version of the legendary C-130J Super Hercules airlifter is powered by four mighty Rolls-Royce turbines, each driving a massive six-bladed propeller.
Given its vast size, the straight-winged turboprop cargo carrier isn’t exactly the type of aircraft you’d expect to see performing aerobatic routines for onlookers.
But when in the hands of an experienced test pilot, the LM-100J can execute a beautifully choreographed flight demonstration that will leave crowds in awe.
And that’s exactly what happened at this year’s Farnborough Airshow, which took place just outside London in July.
Wayne Roberts, chief test pilot of the LM-100J certification program, flew the Super Hercules in a sequence that seemingly included a perfect loop in the sky, a maneuver captured on video that quickly went viral on the internet.
“It was a corkscrew and not a loop, even though the plane could probably do a loop,” Roberts explained to CNN Travel.
“The reason I did a corkscrew is all about safety.”
Roberts has piloted four-engine turboprops for over 40 years and taken part in flying air shows with the Super Hercules since 1998, so he knows his plane inside out.
He spends a lot of time looking into what can go wrong during an airshow routine, even with a lightly-loaded and perfectly-maintained plane, to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
“I’m looking at the probability of any single failure that can happen, primarily engines as well as critical avionics,” he says.
“The ‘Corkscrew Recovery’ actually gives me escape maneuvers for losing any one of the four engines at any point in the routine.
Roberts spent a month and a half updating his previous C-130J air show routines in order to bring this year’s flight demonstration in better visibility of the crowds at Farnborough.
After finalizing the maneuvers and getting approvals from aviation regulators in both the US and the UK, Roberts flew the eight-minute demo over 120 times in a ground-based Super Hercules flight simulator and in the actual airplane “to the point where I could do it exactly the same every time. And that’s a measure of safety in itself.”
But why was everyone on the ground convinced that the LM-100J flew a perfect loop?
“It’s actually what I might call an ‘inclined loop,’ ” he explains.
“It’s the kind of loop that leans, that you start with about 20 degrees of bank, and then at the end of it I actually roll out a little bit and scoop it out in more of a corkscrew.
“But by then everybody’s convinced that it’s a loop and they don’t care what I do in the last quarter of the maneuver,” he adds with a laugh.
Six decades of ‘Hercs’
The first Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport rolled off the production line in Marietta, Georgia more than 60 years ago, in 1956.
Over 2,500 planes have been built on the longest running military production line in history.
Recognizing a market for the C-130 outside of the military, Lockheed certified a civilian version of the first generation Hercules in the 1960s.
Over 100 of the L-100 transports were delivered to commercial operators between 1964 and 1992.
An advanced and stretched version of the Hercules, the C-130J was first flown twenty years ago, and since its introduction, over 400 Super Hercules have been delivered to military forces worldwide.
The decision to certify a commercial version of the Super Hercules was driven by the age of the existing fleet of the civilian Hercules, according to Tony Frese, vice president of business development for Lockheed Martin.
“We think there’s a market out there now,” he says. “A lot of those L-100s are getting old and a lot of our customers are telling us the only replacement for a C-130 is another C-130.”
The first civilian version of the Super Hercules, the LM-100J, had its first flight in May 2017 and was joined by a second plane in October.
Commercial certification of the aircraft is expected to be completed later this year.
Up and Coming Models
The LM-100J, much like its military cousins, will find its way to austere airstrips all over the world, carrying up to 22,670 kilograms of payload in its 55-foot long cargo bay.
Pilots flying the airlifter will benefit from years of technological advancements developed for the military Super Hercules, including a heads-up display (or HUD) derived from Lockheed Martin’s F-22 “Raptor” fighter.
The airspeed and altitude, navigational information and all the critical data needed to fly the LM-100J is projected onto the transparent HUD hanging in front of each pilot.
This enables the pilots to fly “eyes out” while keeping full awareness of the performance of the plane.
The HUD will play a critical role in the “FireHerc,” an upcoming forest fire fighting version of the LM-100J, which was announced at the Farnborough Airshow.
Equipped with a roll-on, roll-off fire-retardant delivery system, pilots will use the HUD to safely maneuver the FireHerc in the challenging flying environment of airborne fire fighting.
It’s been flying for over 60 years, and there’s every indication that the Hercules will still be flying on the plane’s 100th birthday in 2056.
“It’s just a very robust aircraft designed for very severe environments,” says Frese.
“Customers love them for a lot of reasons, they’re flexible and adaptable to different missions. The designers got it right, and I think it’s going to be around for a long time.”
And after years of showing of the Super Herc, Roberts may have just performed his final flight demo in the LM-100J.
“It is entirely possible that it [the Farnborough Airshow demonstration] was my last flight for Lockheed Martin. I decided to stay on to do the air show, and my wife is holding me to it!
“I’ve been flying for 41 years, and this was the highlight.”