At approximately 9 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1967, soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, parachuted from their C-130A troop transports and seized Katum in southern South Vietnam, just 7 miles from the Cambodian border. They were followed by 10 C-130Bs carrying cargo and 105 mm howitzers.
The Katum landing was the largest U.S. airborne operation since the Korean War and the only major one to take place in Vietnam. Although other transport aircraft were involved, the C-130 Hercules did the “heavy lifting,” carrying the bulk and heaviest components of the brigade’s requirements.
The C-130 was born from a 1950 Air Force requirement for a medium-transport aircraft that could operate from an unimproved airstrip and carry a 30,000-pound load of cargo up to 1,500 miles. Other requirements were added later, as Korean War lessons rolled in. Lockheed Aircraft Corp. won a contract in 1951 to build the new cargo plane.
The first prototype flew on Aug. 24, 1954. The first mass-production version of the C-130A left the factory on April 7, 1955. Many improved models followed over the years, but the A and B models were the Vietnam War’s dominant tactical lift aircraft until 1970.
The C-130 was one of the most innovative aircraft designs of the 20th century. It has become the platform for a wide range of tactical roles that include gunship, electronic surveillance, maritime rescue, drone control, aerial refueling, and command and control operations. More important, its high wing design has become a key feature in all but one of the world’s major transport designs.
Upgraded variants of the C-130 are still in production and are expected to remain in service for decades. By all manner of measurement, the C-130 can claim to be best medium-lift cargo aircraft developed so far, surpassing even the Douglas DC-3/C-47’s 60-year service span.