June 6, 2012: As the U.S. Air Force has retired all of its C-130E transports, it is finding nations using even older model C-130s seeking to get the retired C-130Es for free, and then pay to refurbish them for another decade or so of service. Bangladesh is doing this, largely because its four C-130Bs are grounded most of the time because of age-related maintenance issues. The U.S. will provide four C-130Es, and then Bangladesh will pay over $30 million each to have the C-130Es made "like new" again. Bangladesh often uses its C-130s to support the many peacekeeping missions its troops are involved in and for domestic natural disasters.
The U.S. Air Force retired its last C-130E transport earlier this year. Over the last few years it has retired several C-130Es with over 30,000 hours in the air and over 45 years of service. One of those retired two years ago had spent 33,220 hours in the air and flew its last mission in Iraq, serving in a combat zone to the end.
Many of the C-130Es retired in the last few years had a few thousand hours left in them. These C-130s have undergone six or more refurbishments since they entered service in the 1960s. But these aircraft require more maintenance because of their age, which makes them more expensive to operate and less available for service than newer models. Some of these aircraft could be refurbished again and fly for another decade. But the U.S. Air Force would prefer to buy the new, and much more capable, C-130Js.
The American C-130Es are not the ones with the most hours in the air. Several Canadian CC-130Es have over 50,000 hours. But these are to be retired soon. Even the Canadians found that, as their CC-130Es approached 50,000 hours in the air, maintenance became more expensive and time consuming.
On average, C-130s last about 25 years and about 20,000 hours in the air. But averages are just that, and some aircraft get lucky. If an aircraft has relatively few "high stress" (heavy load, rough weather) flights, it will fly longer. The key component in C-130 longevity is the center wing box. This component takes the most punishment and if it suffers corrosion, as well as enough stress to cause metal fatigue, it usually means the useful life of the aircraft is much shorter.
The C-130 has been in service 53 years. So far, nearly 2,300 have been built and it is still in production. Most C-130s built are still in use, although that will change in the next decade as the large number built in the 1960s and early 70s retire.