As the THIN SLICE aircraft were being developed, SOG requirements resulted in the procurement of 14 C-130Es in 1965 for similar modification. The first aircraft were production HC-130s without specialized equipment that were diverted to Lockheed's facility in Marietta, Georgia, in December 1965 for installation of the Fulton STARS then ARS system, at the rate of three aircraft per month. As installation was completed, the Blackbirds were returned to Ontario for installation of the electronics package, code-named Rivet Clamp. The aircraft modified became known as "Clamps" two of the original 14, 64-0564 and -0565, were diverted to HEAVY CHAIN in August 1966.
The Fulton Surface-To-Air Recovery System was used to extract personnel and materials via air. A large helium balloon raised a nylon lift line into the air, which was snagged by a large scissors-shaped yoke attached to the nose of the plane. The yoke snagged the line and released the balloon, yanking the attached cargo off the ground with a shock less than that of an opening parachute. A sky anchor secured the line and wires stretched from the nose to both leading wing tip edges protected the propellers from the line on missed snag attempts. Crew members hooked the snagged line as it trailed behind and attached it to the hydraulic winch, pulling the attached person or cargo into the plane through the rear cargo door.
Following a fatality in 1982, the Fulton STARS system on the Clamp aircraft underwent intense maintenance scrutiny and employment of the system for live pickups was suspended. A major effort at upgrading the system, Project 46, was pursued from 1986 to 1989, but at its conclusion, use of the STARS system for live extractions remained suspended. The Fulton STARS equipment of all Combat Talons was removed during 1998.
Rivet Clamp installation began with four STARS-equipped C-130s completed by March 1966, followed by installations in eight further aircraft in July 1966 and January 1967.
Beginning in 1970, Texas Instruments and Lockheed Air Service worked to adapt the existing AN/APQ-122 Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System AWADS with terrain following/terrain avoidance modes to replace the original APQ-115, which suffered throughout its life with an unacceptably adverse mean-time-between-failure (MTBF) rate. In 1970 they succeeded, and coupled the APQ-122 with the Litton LN-15J Inertial Navigation System INS. Known as MOD-70, the modified radar was installed in all 12 operational Combat Talons and the four HEAVY CHAIN test beds between 1971-1973. The system proved so successful that it continued in service until the late 1980s. Following the completion of MOD-70, the Combat Talons were divided into three designations: C-130E(C) for the "Clamp" aircraft, C-130E(Y) for the "Yank" formerly "Yard" Talons, and C-130E(S) for the "Swap". The Combat Talon I designations were consolidated in 1977 as the MC-130 and have remained under that designation since. The Combat Talon became the Combat Talon I in 1984 with the authorization for the modification of 24 C-130Hs to Combat Talon II specifications.
The "Yank" Talons conducted top secret operations worldwide, under the project name Combat Sam, until late 1972.
A major modification between 1986 and 1994, MOD-90, modernized the capability and serviceability of the Talon I to extend its service life. All 14 Combat Talon Is with upgraded navigational radars, an enhanced electronic warfare suite and provided new outer wings. By 1995 all Combat Talon Is were equipped with a helicopter-air refueling pods.
On March 15, 1968, the detachment was designated the 15th Air Commando Squadron, and then the 15th Special Operations Squadron on August 1, 1968, and made part of the 14th Special Operations Wing. In Vietnam, the aircraft was used to drop leaflets over North Vietnamese positions, and to insert and resupply special forces and indigenous units into hostile territory throughout Southeast Asia. Combat Talon crews operated unescorted at low altitudes and at night.
By 1970 twelve Combat Talons were operational in three units of four aircraft each:
24 primary and five backup crew personnel, all Stray Goose/Combat Spear veterans detached from 7th SOS Combat Arrow and 1st SOW Combat Knife, developed helicopter-fixed wing formation procedures for low level night missions and jointly trained with selected Special Forces volunteers at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Between the end of August and September 28, 1970, Talon, helicopter, and A-1 Skyraider crews supervised by Combat Talon Program Manager Lt. Col. Benjamin N. Kraljev rehearsed the flight profile in terrain-following missions over southern Alabama, flying 368 sorties that totaled more than 1,000 hours. A month of intensive joint training with the Special Forces rescue force followed at a replica of the prison camp.
In early November the task force deployed to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. The 24 primary crew members, a 7th SOS crew Cherry 01 under Major Irl L. "Leon" Franklin and a 1st SOW crew Cherry 02 commanded by Lt Col Albert P. "Friday" Blosch, conducted the mission, which was successfully executed without loss of any personnel. However the operation failed when the prison was found not to contain any prisoners.
By November 1979, the Combat Talon force of 14 MC-130Es was divided among three squadrons, the first two of which were operationally deployed, and the third at Hurlburt essentially the force training squadron:
The four Talons including a spare of the 1st SOS staged to Masirah Island off the coast of Oman on April 19, 1980, to lead the Night One infiltration phase, while the three of the 8th SOS deployed to Wadi Qena, Egypt, on April 21 to lead the Night Two exfiltration phase. To establish a "normal" C-130 presence in Egypt, Talons of the 7th SOS none of which had aerial refueling capability conducted regular flights using Military Airlift Command call signs in and out of Wadi Qena between January 2 and April 8, 1980. They also used the deception to discreetly pre-position needed equipment, including ammunition for AC-130 gunships, at the staging base. The Talon crews also manned three borrowed EC-130E ABCCC aircraft configured to carry 18,000 U.S. gallons of jet fuel in six collapsible bladders for refueling the helicopters. After returning to Masirah, three of the 8th SOS Night One crews would be flown to Wadi Qena to carry out the Night Two mission.
The first phase of the rescue mission began the evening of April 24, led by Lt Col Robert L. Brenci of the 8th SOS in Talon 64-0565, Dragon 1. The 1st SOS Talons successfully secured the forward operating location "Desert One" in the Iranian Desert, but the helicopter portion of the mission ended in disaster. Although the mission was an embarrassing failure costing eight lives, seven helicopters, and an EC-130E aircraft in a ground accident, the MC-130s performed nearly flawlessly. Planning initiatives for a second rescue attempt, under the project name Honey Badger, began two weeks after the failed raid and continued through November. Combat Talon participation in Honey Badger amounted largely to tactics development, but ECM improvements included chaff and flare dispensers and new ALR-69 threat receivers that improved its defensive countermeasures capability well beyond that existing prior to Eagle Claw.
In clouds at above the sea and west of its objective, the lead Talon 64-0562 experienced a complete failure of its APQ-122 radar. Reorganization of the mission formations delayed the airlanding for 30 minutes, during which U.S. Marines made their amphibious landing. To compound the lack of surprise, the U.S. Department of State, apparently in a good faith but inept diplomatic gesture, contacted Cuban authorities and compromised the mission, further alerting the defenses, including a dozen ZSU-23-2 antiaircraft guns. An AC-130 Spectre gunship, directed to observe the main runway for obstructions, reported it blocked by construction equipment and barricades. Loadmasters aboard the inbound Combat Talons reconfigured them for a parachute drop in less than thirty minutes.
Talon 64-0568, flown as Foxtrot 35 by 8th SOS commander Lt. Col. James L. Hobson and with the commander of the Twenty-Third Air Force Maj. Gen. William J. Mall, Jr. aboard as a passenger, combat-dropped the headquarters section of the 1st Ranger Battalion on the airport, despite being targeted by a searchlight and under heavy AAA fire. Two Spectre gunships suppressed the AAA so that the other Combat Talons and the SOLL C-130s could complete the parachute drop of the Ranger battalion, with the only damage to the Talons being three hits by small arms fire to 64-0572. For his actions, Hobson was awarded the MacKay Trophy in 1984.
Two 7th SOS Talons deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, as part of Operation Proven Force. They supported the first Joint Search and Rescue mission over Iraq, attempting to recover the crew of Corvette 03, a downed F-15E Strike Eagle. However permission from the Turkish government to fly the mission was delayed for 24 hours, and the crew was not recovered.
A Combat Talon I was the first aircraft to land at New Orleans International Airport after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. On July 14, 2006, the 8th SOS flew its last Combat Talon I mission and began conversion to the CV-22 Osprey, ending 41 years of active service for the MC-130E, which continues in service with the Air Force Reserve.
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