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The original Four Horsemen, Gene Chaney, James Akin, David Moore and Bill Hatfield have a conversation amongst themselves in front of a C-130.
The original Four Horsemen, Gene Chaney, James Akin, David Moore and Bill Hatfield have a conversation amongst themselves in front of a C-130. (U.S. Air Force)

In the spring of 1964, as a newly arrived aircraft maintenance technician at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, I was shown the film The Four Horsemen Story while attending a Lockheed C-130E familiarization course. Essentially a Lockheed sales tool designed to demonstrate to prospective customers just how maneuverable the Hercules really was, the film made a lasting impression on me–mostly because it focused on a group of real C-130 pilots who had organized what was perhaps the most unusual aerial demonstration team in the history of the U.S. Air Force.

The C-130A Hercules entered service with the Air Force’s 463rd Troop Carrier Wing, a Tactical Air Command (TAC) unit, in December 1956. Within a few months the former Fairchild C-119 pilots of the wing’s 774th Troop Carrier Squadron, the first such unit to be equipped with the Hercules, had become quite proficient with their new aircraft. Most of the aircraft commanders were veteran pilots, many with careers that dated back to the Korean War, when they had flown Douglas C-47s and Curtiss C-46s and C-119s in combat. All were impressed with the tremendous maneuverability of the new plane, the result of hydraulically boosted flight controls that gave the 125,200-pound transport the handling characteristics of a fighter. Powered by four Allison T-56 turboprop engines, the C-130A was also blessed with tremendous performance. It was only natural that many of its pilots would experiment to see just how good the plane really was–and how good they were at flying it.

In early 1957 four aircrews from the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron, the ‘Green Weasels,’ were at Fort Campbell, Ky., for a week of dropping troops of the 101st Airborne Division. One day high winds led to a cancellation of the day’s drops and a mission stand-down for the crews. With time to kill and their aircraft ready to go, the four pilots–Captains Gene Chaney, Jim Aiken, David Moore and Bill Hatfield–decided to practice some formation flying. They took off and headed out over the fields of Kentucky and Tennessee, where they started moving closer and closer together in their formation. Next they returned to the airfield at Campbell and made several low-altitude passes down the runway, still in tight formation. Suddenly, an idea was born: Why not practice until they got really adept with the planes, and then go around to military bases and put on performances for the troops?

At the end of the week the foursome went back to their home base at Ardmore, Okla., and began working on a routine. Some 500 miles to the east, the men of the 314th Troop Carrier Wing at Sewart Air Force Base in Tennessee were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their own brand-new C-130s, all set to become the second Air Force unit to equip with the new transport. The four 774th pilots proposed a plan to the TAC brass: Let the four pilots and crews who had been practicing formation flying take four C-130s and fly to Sewart, to show the men of the 314th just what kind of airplane they were getting. TAC Headquarters approved the plan, and the new aerial demonstration team was off and running. At first they referred to themselves as the ‘Thunder Weasels,’ a combination of the animal on the 774th’s squadron patch and the famous Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team, but they eventually settled on the ‘Four Horsemen’ after Coach Knute Rockne’s legendary backfield on Notre Dame’s 1924 football team. They put on a show for the Sewart people, who were suitably impressed.

(U.S. Air Force)

As the men grew more and more proficient with their maneuvers, they became enthusiastic about becoming an officially recognized aerial demonstration team. The four pilots began researching Air Force technical orders, safety standards and procedures to find out how to obtain official recognition. At length their efforts paid off, with TAC officially sanctioning their status as an aerial demonstration team.

While the C-130 might look ungainly to the uninitiated, it was really a highly maneuverable airplane, particularly for a transport. The C-130A, for example, was capable of using 2,700-foot landing strips–remarkably short for an airplane that size. When the Horsemen demonstrated the C-130’s short-field takeoff performance, they did so in a close diamond formation. Led by Moore and sometimes by Chaney, who served as the team captain, the four planes would taxi onto the runway and form a diamond formation. The maneuver called for the four transports to begin rolling at two-second intervals, although Aviation Week magazine pilot-editor Robert Stanfield, who flew with them in 1959, said it seemed like they all started rolling at once. On that occasion the reporter was flying in the’slot’ airplane, the best vantage point from which to observe the Horsemen in action. Thanks to the prop-wash from the three preceding airplanes, the slot airplane, usually flown by Bill Hatfield, would get off the ground first. Hatfield would hold his airspeed down to 100 knots until the other airplanes were airborne. The Horsemen would retract gear and flaps on a signal from the lead plane and begin a sharp climb at 120 knots, achieving better than a 4,000-foot-per-minute rate of climb that would put them over the end of a 10,000-foot runway at 1,500 feet. Normal troop carrier procedures called for 15-second takeoff intervals between airplanes.

Once in the air, the Four Horsemen would perform a series of intricate maneuvers at altitudes ranging from just above the runway to 3,000 feet. They flew their diamond really tight. According to Aviation Week‘s Stanfield, the slot plane’s nose was held as close as seven feet from the leader’s tail. Because of the downwash from the propellers, each of the following aircraft flew slightly higher than the one in front. Each pilot would try to fly right ‘on top of the bubble.’ The slot airplane would be the highest in the formation, its windshield level with the top one-third of the lead airplane’s tail fin. The noses of the two wingmen were in line with a row of rivets that ran the length of the lead airplane’s wings. Dropping down into the wash of the leading airplanes could be dangerous. In one instance slot pilot Hatfield was flying an airplane that had a ‘Bulldog’ winch in the back, standard on all TAC C-130s at the time. The tie-downs that secured the winch were evidently loose, and when Hatfield accidentally dropped into the prop wash of the airplanes ahead of him, the resulting turbulence caused the winch to rise above the floor of the airplane. As the turbulence went from negative to positive G-forces, the winch came back down with such momentum that it knocked a hole in the cargo compartment floor.

The team alternated between different formations. The arrow was a line-astern formation in which each airplane was tucked in right behind and slightly above the one before it. From the arrow they would go to the arrowhead, as the two trailing airplanes moved to the side of the line and took formation in line with each other, tucked in on the number two airplane. They also flew echelon formations, and ended their show with a bomb burst: The lead and number three aircraft would break high and to the left while numbers two and four broke to the right. They then rejoined in the diamond and returned to the airfield for a formation landing, moving into an echelon over the runway, then doing a tactical pitch-out to come back around for landing. The first plane would still be on the runway when the slot man touched down. Their show was as impressive as any put on by fighter pilots, and perhaps even more so considering the size and weight of the planes.

No particular aircraft were assigned to the Four Horsemen. Each crew drew whatever plane happened to be available on the flight line at Ardmore, or at Sewart after the 463rd moved there to join the 314th shortly after the latter wing converted to the Hercules. The two wings made up the muscle of TAC’s 839th Air Division, which was also based at Sewart. The demonstration pilots flew the same training and operational missions as the other pilots in the two C-130 wings.

Very early on, the C-130 demonstrated its ability to fly on three and even two engines without a significant loss of performance. In fact, a Lockheed test crew took off from Florida, shut down the aircraft’s outboard engines and flew all the way to California at low level on two engines. The airplane was so overpowered that crews routinely shut down the outboard engines on some flights to conserve fuel.

During one Four Horseman performance, Chaney, who normally flew in the number three position but was taking the lead that day, lost an outboard engine. He and his crew went through the engine shutdown procedure without losing their place in formation, then simply went on with the show (let’s see the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels try that one!).

The most difficult position to fly in the formation was number three, because the aircraft commander was on the opposite side of the airplane from the rest of the formation and had to constantly be turning his head to the right. As the chief of the Horsemen, Chaney usually occupied that spot, while Moore usually flew the lead. The co-pilot in the right seat helped his boss maintain the tight formation that had become the team’s trademark. All the pilots were highly qualified veterans, with an average of 4,000 hours of total flying time and 1,500 hours in C-130s by late 1959, when the Aviation Week journalist rode with them. Co-pilots were drawn from the ranks of aircraft commanders in the squadron, and quite often those men were instructor pilots as well.

When the 774th was deployed, the Four Horsemen went right along with their squadron mates, airlifting men and equipment to Lebanon in one instance and to Formosa in another. They practiced their Horsemen routine whenever they could, but that was often less than 10 hours a month. The pilots maintained their proficiency the same way other troop carrier pilots did–flying training missions that included close formation flying, though not as close as the Horsemen generally flew in a performance. The men themselves wore no distinctive uniforms other than a small patch on their flight suits with a horse’s head and a Roman numeral IV. They also wore scarves to dress up a bit for the shows.

The C-130 ordinarily called for a five-man crew, but the Horsemen flew with only four–two pilots, a flight engineer and a scanner. The navigator’s seat sat empty during the shows. The crews came from within the squadron, and the Horsemen pilots tried to fly with the same flight mechanics when possible. There was great esprit de corps among the flight mechanics, who debated which pilot was best, which position was most difficult to fly and so on. In the air, the mechanics soon learned the torque settings needed at a particular point in a maneuver and the proper time for call-outs of instrument readings. The scanners came from maintenance and were just as proud to be part of the Four Horsemen as the pilots and flight mechanics. Hatfield remembered that the scanners ordinarily did not fly during performances, but were there to help get the airplanes off the ground.

The four veteran aircraft commanders of the Horsemen team had been with the C-130 since it was first assigned to the 463rd at Ardmore in December 1956. Chaney, along with Captain Richard ‘Stumpy’ Coleman, had picked up the first airplane to be delivered at the factory in Marietta, Ga., and flown it to Ardmore. A year after the first Hercules arrived at Ardmore, the 463rd left Oklahoma when the base closed, moving to Tennessee to join the 314th. The Horsemen continued to stage their performances from their new base.

By early 1960 the C-130 had been in service with the Air Force for more than two years. Lockheed had developed a new model of the Hercules, the C-130B, and the 463rd and 314th began converting to the new version as the older A-models transferred to overseas squadrons. As the oldest C-130 pilots in the Air Force (in terms of time in the airplane), the Four Horsemen were ripe for deployment overseas. In a recent interview Hatfield speculated that they could probably have remained at Sewart and continued the team if someone had pushed for it, but it didn’t happen that way. Three of the four received overseas orders, while the fourth, Moore, left the service and returned to Texas. Chaney got orders to Wiesbaden, West Germany. Aiken went to Tachikawa, Japan, and Hatfield ended up a few miles away, in Yokota. Except for Moore, they would all remain in close contact with one another over the years. Chaney and Moore died several years ago. Hatfield and Aiken still remain in touch today.

Although the career of the Four Horsemen came to an end in the spring of 1960, they left behind a remarkable legacy. In honor of the team, the official patch of the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron was modified to include a red lightning bolt, reminiscent of the team’s effect on the squadron.

During the remainder of their careers, the four pilots remained associated with the C-130, as did many others who had flown with the team as backup aircraft commanders and co-pilots. Hatfield went on to pilot the reconnaissance version of the C-130B, with the super-secret 6091st Reconnaissance Squadron at Yokota, then returned to the United States to join the Lockheed C-141 program at Charleston Air Force Base, in South Carolina. He subsequently was placed in command of a rescue squadron equipped with HC-130Hs in California. Chaney returned to the 463rd after the wing moved from Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia (where it had gone from Sewart in 1963), to Clark Field in the Philippines.

Billie Mills, a veteran 774th pilot who often flew with the Four Horsemen, also served with the 463rd at Clark. On May 12, 1968, Mills was one of a handful of C-130 pilots who braved devastating enemy fire to rescue allied troops surrounded by a larger enemy force at a Special Forces camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam.

Today the memory of the Four Horsemen lives on in the 16mm film Lockheed produced. To make that 15-minute movie, a motion picture company hired by Lockheed shot thousands of feet of film of the quartet in action. The Horsemen themselves were not especially happy with the finished product once it was edited down. The voices of actors were dubbed into the film, including one with a nasal northern voice who claimed to be the ‘chief’ of the Horsemen. In reality, all the Horsemen were Southerners–Chaney and Moore from Texas, Aiken from Tennessee and Hatfield from Mississippi.

With the advent of the VCR, The Four Horsemen Story has been circulated through the C-130 community, though the VHS version leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to the film that inspired me back in early 1964. Airlift tactics have changed considerably since 1960, as the Tactical Air Command troop carrier squadrons became tactical airlift, then were transferred out of TAC to the Military Airlift Command after the end of the Vietnam War. By that time, close formation flying by troop carrier aircraft had already ceased, with TAC adopting the ‘in-trail’ formation as the standard for C-130s.

The Four Horsemen have been out of business for more than 40 years now. But the men who came up with a way to showcase the Hercules’ excellent performance and their remarkable aerial demonstrations are not forgotten, thanks largely to one short film and the lasting memories they gave everyone who witnessed firsthand their precision maneuvers in transport aircraft.

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