The C-130 remains the flying backbone of America's combat forces. You need a pallet of crap moved from an air base to a dirt strip? No problem. You need a flying command post? No problem. You need to infiltrate below enemy radar to refuel helicopters in mid air? No problem. In fact, Iron Horse, the USAF's oldest C-130, has done all these things and more in its colorful life.

The 'legacy' C-130 is a blue collar airplane. It doesn't have a ton of frills, it is loud, smokey, and well worn and many have multiple vocations under their belt. Yet they work so well that the USAF has trouble sending them out to pasture. Aircraft 62-1863, an HC-130P Combat King nicknamed "Iron Horse," is one of these planes.

The 52 year old Iron Horse started out life as a nondescript C-130E, spending much of the 60s and early 70s hauling material and personnel around the Vietnam Theater of operations. It rambled on as a standard line C-130E for decades, spending many thousands of hours doing what C-130s do, which is just about everything having to do with logistics and wings.


Somewhere in its mid-life, presumably in the early 1990s, 62-1863 was converted into one of the most important, albeit obscure, aircraft in the entire USAF inventory, the EC-130E Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center. These modified C-130s, of which about eight were put into service, were incredibly capable, versatile and economical flying multi-role command and control and data-fusion platforms. There broad mission is described by

The EC-130E ABCCC consists of seven aircraft that are used as an Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center. The EC-130E is a modified C-130 "Hercules"; aircraft designed to carry the USC-48 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center Capsules (ABCCC III). These one-of-a kind aircraft include the addition of external antennae to accommodate the vast number of radios in the capsule, heat exchanger pods for additional air conditioning, an aerial refueling system and special mounted rails for uploading and downloading the USC-48 capsule. The ABCCC has distinctive air conditioner intakes fore of the engines ("Mickey Mouse ears"), two HF radio probes-towards the tips of both wings, and three mushroom-shaped antennas on the top of the aircraft - and, of course, numerous antennas on the belly.

As an Air Combat Command asset, ABCCC (A-B-Triple-C) is an integral part of the Tactical Air Control System. While functioning as a direct extension of ground-based command and control authorities, the primary mission is providing flexibility in the overall control of tactical air resources. In addition, to maintain positive control of air operations, ABCCC can provide communications to higher headquarters, including national command authorities, in both peace and wartime environments.

The USC-48 ABCCC III capsule, which fits into the aircraft cargo compartment, measures 40 feet long, weighs approximately 20,000 pounds and costs $9 million each. The ABCCC provides unified and theater commanders an Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC), with the capability for combat operations during war, contingencies, exercises, and special classified missions. A highly trained force of mission ready crew members and specially equipped EC-130E aircraft to support worldwide combat operations. Mission roles include airborne extensions of the Air Operations Center (AOC) and Airborne Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) for command and control of Offensive Air Support (OAS) operations; and airborne on-scene command for special operations such as airdrops or evacuations.

The ABCCC system is a high-tech automated airborne command and control facility featuring computer generated color displays, digitally controlled communications, and rapid data retrieval. The platform's 23 fully securable radios, secure teletype, and 15 automatic fully computerized consoles, allow the battlestaff to quickly analyze current combat situations and direct offensive air support towards fast-developing targets. ABCCC, is equipped with its most recent upgrade the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, allows real-time accountability of airborne tracks to capsule displays through data links with AWACS E-3 "Sentry" aircraft.


Iron Horse served at Davis Monthan AFB in Tuscon, AZ in the EC-130E role for about a decade, when the old "Herky Bird" was selected to undergo yet another transformation, this time into a combat search and rescue and special operations support tanker, known as a HC-130P Combat King.


Iron Horse has been flying low-level blacked out aerial refueling missions, delivering PJs to their drop zones at all different altitudes, performing search and rescue missions and a whole slew of other cool crap for over ten years, flying with the 71st Rescue Squadron, based out of Moody AFB. Now, with some 27,533 hours on her 52 year old airframe, and with the much more capable and modern HC-130J Combat King II joining the fleet, Iron Horse has taken her last ride. Her final destination, like almost every other DoD bird that is no longer wanted or afforded, is her old home at Davis Monthan AFB, only this time she will sit in the 'back lot' instead of on the flightline.

All the rest of the standard C-130Es are gone out of the USAF's inventory, being retired to the boneyard around the turn of the decade. Today, around 265 C-130Hs continue to soldier on, although their fleet size is in no way secure. A looming 2020 requirement for an expensive avionics upgrade, a program the DoD has bungled with for years, remains a moving budgetary target for these remaining 'legacy' C-130s. So enjoy these proud, reliable and hard worn smokey old birds while they still grace the skies. A lot of glory, courage and a whole slew of other stuff, some of it probably unimaginable, has passed through their cargo holds over the last five decades or so.


Just imagine the stories Iron Horse and all its comrades could tell...

Pictures & Source via USAF, silhouette shot of C-130 with smoke trails via the author.


Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address