YUMA, Ariz., Dec. 2 (UPI) -- A stretch version of the workhorse C-130 military cargo plane passed an important test, it was announced Monday, when it conducted a series of landings and takeoffs from a dusty dirt airstrip in the Arizona desert that recreated the conditions of runways the plane would likely encounter on combat missions to remote hot spots.
The CC-130J, which has a fuselage some 180 inches longer than the familiar Vietnam-era C-130 and is dubbed the "Super Hercules," passed the final test before the Air Force begins the operational testing and evaluation phase next year, Lockheed Martin said.
"The CC-130J's ability to take off and land on very short, austere runways is a unique capability," said Ross Reynolds, the C-130J program vice president.
The Super Hercules is envisioned as a means of getting more men and supplies to a battlefield or some other trouble spot than the standard Hercules' capabilities.
Lockheed Martin said the aircraft is equipped with a computerized cargo-handling system, and can comfortably carry 128 combat-ready troops compared to the 92 who can squeeze into a regular C-130.
The aircraft also has the ability to fly 4,000 miles without refueling and can carry newer military vehicles such as the Stryker, a versatile, lightly armored car that is expected to be a mainstay of the Army's fast-moving Interim Brigade Combat Teams.
"The Super Hercules, with its greatly increased range and speed, is going to revolutionize transport operations both strategically and tactically," Reynolds predicted. "The CC-130J will be able to deploy new systems, such as the Army's Stryker, over greater distances into areas unreachable by other aircraft."
During the recent tests at Tyson Field near Yuma, Air Force pilots landed the aircraft on a 2,000-foot dirt runway that Lockheed Martin said was "selected for its environmental representation of possible war zone landing conditions."
"At the completion of the dirt-landing trials, Air Force crews praised the aircraft's handling qualities and performance when operating from rough fields, a mode of operation expected to be commonplace in future C-130J operations," Lockheed Martin said in a press release.
The 2002 U.S. defense budget includes $355 million for five CC-130Js to be delivered in 2004. Four of the five will be assigned to transport units in the Air Force Reserve and the California and Rhode Island Air National Guard.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)