When an American aircraft goes down, be it over a remote training ground or behind enemy lines, the Air Force's crack teams of para rescue forces jump into action. The new HC-130J Combat King II is the plane that delivers them when the two-seater Apaches can't, even into active combat zones.
The $66 million 130J, built by Lockheed Martin, is a variant of the venerable C-130 transport plane and a recapitalized (upgraded) edition of the original Combat King, the HC-130P/N. As the USAF's only dedicated fixed-wing personnel recovery platform, it performs many functions, but has been designed mostly for extended range search and rescue (SAR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) in hostile environments.
This can include delivering expeditionary forces, recovering personnel, helicopter air to-air refuelling, and landing to act as a forward area petrol station. What's more, the aircraft can also be used in humanitarian missions such as disaster response, aero-medical evacuation, and noncombatant evacuation. The US Coast Guard also employs it for SAR operations at sea for both command & control and as a flying gas station for search helicopters as seen in the image above. Interestingly, the Combat King II can itself be refuelled in midair by another tanker plane if the need arises.
The Combat King II is roughly the same size as the original Hercules C-130, measuring nearly 100 feet long and nearly 40 feet tall with a wingspan of 133 feet. The plane itself weighs nearly 44,000 kilograms and can carry and additional 16,000 of cargo and just over 34,000 litres of fuel. A quartet of 4,591 HP Four Rolls Royce AE2100D3 turboprop engines allow the Combat King to reach speeds of 316 knots, heights of 33,000 feet, and ranges of more than 4,000 miles. And with midair refuelings, the Combat King II can stay aloft practically indefinitely.
Getting a plane this big behind enemy lines unnoticed is no small feat for the craft's three officers and two enlisted loadmasters. Missions typically occur at night at low to medium altitudes to avoid radar detection with the crew using either the integrated FLIR system or don night vision goggles to navigate the blacked out plane over occupied territory. The 130J is equipped with radar and missile warning receivers to detect incoming threats, and if those activate, chaff and flare dispensers to counter incoming threats.
Lockheed has been developing the 130J for the past few years ,with the plane's first successful test flight happening in July of 2010 and the first aircraft delivery to the USAF occurring in September of the same year. The Air Force performed its own Initial Operational Capability (IOC) testing throughout 2012 and once completed, began delivering 130Js to Air Combat Commands around the country. In all, the USAF plans to purchase 78 of the HC-130Js for everyone from the Coast Guard to the Special Forces.