Updated 09 Feb
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) will officially retire the first of its Lockheed C-130H Hercules tactical transport aircraft this week.
Located at Base Auckland the RNZAF’s No. 40 Squadron, which operates a fleet of five C-130H aircraft, will hold a ceremony to mark to occasion on 12 February and a Squadron retirement function in the hangar the day before.
The Squadron provides the RNZAF’s tactical and strategic transport capability. It is undergoing a process of transition as it will replace the C-130H with a fleet of five new C-130J-30 tactical transport aircraft from 2024. 40 Squadron also operates two Boeing 757-200 aircraft for long-range personnel and cargo strategic airlift operations. These latter aircraft will be replaced from 2028-2030.
40 Squadron provides six crews for the C-130 and four crews for the 757 with a maintenance and support infrastructure at Base Auckland. Each C-130 crew includes two pilots, a flight engineer, an air warfare officer and two air loadmasters. For the 757 there are two pilots, one air loadmaster and 2-4 flight stewards depending on passenger numbers.
Wing Commander Blair Oldershaw told Australian Defence Magazine that the first C-130H aircraft will fly to RNZAF Base Woodbourne to be put into storage four or five days prior to the ceremony.
“We acquired the aircraft in 1965 so when you retire the first one it is a big deal. [The C-130H fleet] has provided significant service and capability to New Zealand over a substantial period, almost 60 years, it’s phenomenal,” WGCDR Oldershaw said.
“It does represent the end of an era and a significant period of change,” he added, “The last time the RNZAF acquired large fixed-wing aircraft was in the 1960s and in the space of three years we are acquiring the P-8A and C-130J – that is a huge change for the RNZAF and there will be a period of adaption that is required from us as an organisation as well.”
In January, the RNZAF’s No. 5 Squadron retired the last three of its original six P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs). These are being replaced by a fleet of four new P-8A Poseidon MPAs by mid-2023.
40 Squadron will receive a fleet of five new C-130J-30 transport aircraft from 2024-25 but the reason for the early retirement of the first C-130H this year is because the aircraft was due to enter an extended ‘group servicing’ deep maintenance period.
Oldershaw explained that a group servicing is taking more than 12 months to complete therefore it made sense to just retire the aircraft: “It wont’ be for another 12 months that a reduction in aircraft availability will be noticed and by that time we will be much closer to the arrival of the C-130J,” he said.
The retirement of the first -H variant means that some personnel in 40 Squadron will available for training on the new -J aircraft to accelerate the transition to the platform. It is expected that the introduction of the C-130J will take place rapidly once the aircraft are delivered.
In preparation for the new aircraft the Squadron is splitting into two separate units: those that will continue to operate the C-130H capability and those that will transition into the C-130J. As the -J variant enters service 40 Squadron will draw down on -H operations and the last aircraft retired as the -J fleet achieves full operational capability.
“We have been planning quite carefully for this for some years now and we have already built up a reserve of people in order to achieve that,” WGCDR Oldershaw said, “This will allow C-130H to continue to meet demand and maintain the output of 40 Squadron during the transition.”
The initial tranche of RNZAF crews for the five C-130J aircraft are being trained at the US Air Force (USAF) Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, Arkansas. This includes the training of flying instructors and aircrew instructors that whose expertise will be used to develop a C-130J training system in New Zealand following the establishment of the aircraft in-country.
WGCDR Oldershaw said that the first crews will be travelling to the US “within the next few months” to begin that process. “By the time the first C-130J is ready it will be flown to New Zealand by a New Zealand crew that has been trained in the US. We are completing the same with maintenance personnel, our first tranche of maintainers has already arrived for training in the US and will embed with USAF units to gain experience well before the -J arrives in New Zealand.” he added.
Because all the crews are being trained in advance WGCDR Oldershaw said that following the arrival of the C-130J aircraft they are “anticipating a short time frame to be able to have it available for full capability release.”
The first New Zealand-based C-130J conversion course is scheduled for 2026. It is not required before this date because quota for the initial six fully trained crews will have already been provided for. This reduces the pressure to deliver an in-country capability.
Meanwhile a dedicated full motion C-130J simulator is being delivered as part of the contract that will drastically alter the way that 40 Squadron can complete its training. WGCDR Oldershaw said that he anticipates about 80 per cent of pilot training expected to be completed in the simulator instead of the aircraft.
This speeds up training and allows more aircraft flying hours to be devoted to missions. Simulator training for the current C-130H fleet is completed overseas which means it cannot be used as regularly because of the location and time it takes to send crews away. It also means that more crew training is conducted in the aircraft further reducing hours available for missions.
The age of the C-130Hs has required increasing amounts of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance to allow them to fly safely. “It means that at the end of the aircraft lifecycle you would expect to spend more time on the ground than available for flight duties,” WGCDR Oldershaw explained, “A lot of that is planned, but there are more checks and things take longer. Then the final part is sourcing and supplying parts and components which becomes increasingly difficult as the aircraft ages.”
With the introduction of the J-model the RNZAF expects an increase in aircraft availability particularly in the first 7-10 years of the service lives of the aircraft. This is because the aircraft are new and will need less maintenance, which means more flight hours and the ability for 40 Squadron to plan for and conduct concurrent taskings.
40 Squadron’s maintenance component is expected to remain the same in size but WGCDR Oldershaw said that he is currently looking at what opportunities there are to complete more maintenance in-house.
Meanwhile the replacement of the 757-200 aircraft is still in its early stages. “The Ministry has begun engaging with industry and international partners on an opportunities assessment to inform an indicative business case,” a spokesperson from the New Zealand Ministry of Defence told ADM.
However, the capability requirements for a strategic airlift capability will largely depend on what 40 Squadron can provide with the new C-130J and the extent to which a new aircraft fleet can complement those aircraft. “That will inform what the strategic capability replacement will look like,” WGCDR Oldershaw said.
The retirement flight for the C-130H to Woodbourne is scheduled today.