On Friday 17 December 2021, the Belgian Air Force said goodbye to the Lockheed C-130H Hercules. After almost fifty years of loyal service, the Lockheed C-130H Hercules was officially grounded by the 15th Wing Air Transport in favour of its successor, the Airbus A400M Atlas.
More than one year ago, on Friday 9 October 2020, the very first Airbus A400M Atlas for the 15th Wing Air Transport of the Belgian Air Force arrived at Melsbroek Air Base. Around that same time, the Belgian Air Force began to communicate that the Lockheed C-130H Hercules was nearing the end of its useful life in the Belgian Air Force and that it expected to retire the type by the end of 2021.
On Tuesday 30 November 2021, the 20th Squadron Tactical Airlift sent out a communication to enthusiasts and spotters that, in cooperation with the 15th Wing Air Transport, it would organise a small event including a farewell flight, to pay a tribute to the Lockheed C-130H Hercules. Between 13:00 and 17:00 participants would have to be present on the tarmac for departure and arrival of the farewell flight. They would also be able to take pictures of the C-130 aircraft from a close range, receive the C-130 farewell patch, be able to talk to both Belgian Air Force and foreign C-130 crews and even be able to take pictures of arrivals and departures of civil aircraft (Melsbroek Air Base is located on the northern side of Brussels Airport).
Immediately after I received the announcement in my inbox, I enrolled and hoped to be allowed. Unfortunately, few days later I got a message that I did not make it on the list of participants and that I had been put on a waiting list. Too bad, but as the saying goes, you can’t win them all. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to the day and hoping to get some nice final photo opportunities and to say farewell to this iconic aircraft.
On Monday 13 December 2021, the Belgian Air Force published an official schedule and routing of the planned farewell flight on Friday 17 December 2021. A formation of seven Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft would take off from Melsbroek Air Base at 13:00 LT (local time / GMT + 1) and fly via multiple waypoints to many airport, airfields and air bases in Belgium where the aircraft would do a low level flyby, such as Ursel Air Base, Ostend Airport, Koksijde Air Base, Florennes Air Base, Saint-Hubert Airfield, Beauvechain Air Base, Kleine Brogel Air Base and Antwerp Airport. The formation would arrive back at Melsbroek Air Base at 15:45 LT.
Almost exactly one year ago, on Friday 18 December 2020, the Belgian Air Force had retired its Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-09 and operated a final flight in almost perfect meteorological conditions, allowing spotters and enthusiasts to get some very nice photos of the final flight of CH-09.
As the week progressed, the meteo forecast for Friday 17 December 2021 became more and more unfavourable. Cloud base was expected to be very low and visibility would probably be limited due to fog. On Thursday 16 December, the weather was much nicer at Melsbroek Air Base than initially anticipated, so some probably began to hope for some nice weather on Friday too. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
On the morning of Friday 17 December 2021 at 09:50 LT, these were the valid METAR and TAF for Brussels Airport:
EBBR 170850Z VRB01KT 0150 R25L/0350N R25R/0450N R01/0500N FG OVC001 04/04 Q1040 NOSIG=
EBBR 170500Z 1706/1812 02003KT 0800 FG BKN020 TEMPO 1706/1710 0300 FG BKN001 BECMG 1710/1713 3500 BR SCT004 BKN007 PROB30 TEMPO 1715/1722 6000 NSW SCT006 BKN014 BECMG 1801/1803 08010KT PROB40 TEMPO 1804/1810 2000 BR BKN003 BECMG 1810/1812 7000 NSW SCT005 BKN008
Just before 10:00 LT, the Belgian Air Force announced via social media that the planned farewell flight had to be cancelled due to unfavourable meteorological conditions. “Safety First”, said Senior Captain Kurt Verwilligen of the Belgian Air Force. “It would be irresponsible to to let these multiple aircraft fly so close to each other today. Safety comes first, at all times.” he continued. Hence, the Belgian Air Force quickly had to arrange for an alternative flying programme. Instead of a ‘tour of Belgium’ with all aircraft, three aircraft would each operate their own flight in a different direction. The final flight plan was announced via social media at around 10:30 LT. Due to the unfavourable meteorological conditions, I was unable to make any decent photos of these farewell flights.
The 15th Wing Air Transport and 20th Squadron Tactical Airlift had invited some international guests to pay tribute to the Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, including Polish Air Force C-130E 1503, Italian Air Force C-130J MM62185 and United States Air Force C-130J 16-5840/65840. A Royal Air Force C-130J Hercules from RAF Brize Norton and operated by the 47th Squadron of the Royal Air Force would also do a flypast over Melsbroek Air Base later that day.
Members of the press who attended the event were eagerly waiting for a seat on the cancelled farewell flight. However, they all got a second chance to spend an hour between the clouds as a Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules took off for a flight and joined an Airbus A-400M Atlas. Both aircraft set course for Florennes Air Base for some low level flyby’s. When the C-130 arrived back at Melsbroek Air Base it got the traditional water salute by the fire department.
In 1970, the Belgian Government ordered twelve C-130H Hercules transport aircraft from Lockheed to replace the ageing Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar. All twelve aircraft would be delivered between 1972 and 1973. The first Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules landed at Melsbroek Air Base on Tuesday 25 July 1972. The other eleven remaining C-130’s were delivered between July 1972 and April 1973. Two years later, the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar was withdrawn from use in the Belgian Air Force.
During the fleet’s active career in the Belgian Air Force, two aircraft were lost. On Monday 15 July 1996, Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-06 made a crash landing at Eindhoven Air Base after a severe bird strike hit engines one and two during approach. Sadly, four crew members and thirty-seven passengers received fatal injuries during this tragedy. On Friday 5 May 2006, a fire destroyed an aircraft maintenance hangar at Brussels Airport. Multiple aircraft including Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-02 were destroyed.
In early 2007, the Belgian Government ordered one additional (used) Lockheed C-130 Hercules from Evergreen International Airlines. The aircraft was refurbished and delivered to the Belgian Air Force on Tuesday 17 March 2009 as CH-13 (initially it was registered as CH-14).
Humanitarian Missions And Evacuations
The Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules transport aircraft have been used in more than fifty international peace and security operations. “The C-130 was the first to arrive and the first aircraft to operate each mission. Without air transport, operations in foreign countries cannot take place and they are of utmost importance to ensure the safety of our Belgian citizens.” explained Major Guy Bodet, Squadron Commander of the Belgian Air Force C-130 Maintenance Squadron.
The final mission was operation Red Kite where more than 1,400 citizens were evacuated. A total of three Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules transport aircraft operated more than twenty flights between the airports of Islamabad (Pakistan) and Kabul (Afghanistan). The C-130 was also used in the recent ‘Tropical Storm’ exercise in Gabon.
Each Belgian soldier who has ever been on a mission has a special connection with the C-130. It guaranteed both the supply of rations as well as souvenirs from home. Its wings also brought relief and symbolised the end of a long mission abroad.
3,900 Times Around The World
During its career of almost fifty years, the Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules transport aircraft fleet carried 150,000 tonnes of cargo, travelled a total distance of more than 3,900 times around the world in 285,000 hours and made 199,500 landings.
At the end of 2017, a first Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules was permanently grounded. Since then, the remaining fleet of C-130H transport aircraft was gradually being retired. Flight crew and technicians were getting trained on the new Airbus A400M Atlas transport aircraft, of which the first one for the 15th Wing Air Transport (CT-01) arrived at Melsbroek Air Base on Friday 9 October 2020 and the first one for the Belgian Air Force (CT-02) arrived at Melsbroek Air Base on Tuesday 22 December 2020. These Airbus A400M Atlas transport aircraft are now fully ready to take over the tasks and missions of the Lockheed C-130H transport aircraft.
Return Of The Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules
It was more than obvious that, after the poor weather conditions of Friday 17 December 2021 and the alternative farewell flights, many enthusiasts including myself felt a bit disappointed. The Belgian Air Force, 15th Wing Air Transport and 20th Squadron Tactical Airlift must have felt the same way because, on Monday 20 December 2021, Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-05 and CH-12 unexpectedly reached for the skies again during a new series of farewell flights over Belgium. A nice surprise indeed. And that was only the beginning. On Tuesday 21 December 2021, Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-07 operated two farewell flights over Belgium. I was fortunate enough to see CH-07 arriving back at Melsbroek Air Base around lunchtime after the first farewell flight.
On the evening of Tuesday 21 December 2021, the 20th Squadron Tactical Airlift published a communication on their Facebook account, confirming rumours of a final series of farewell flights with two C-130’s the next morning. Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-05 and CH-07 would do their own final farewell flight. And indeed, on Wednesday 22 December 2021 at around 09:05 LT, Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-05 took off from Melsbroek Air Base as flight BAF666 and made a low level flyby over RWY 25L before doing its final farewell flight over Belgium. At around 09:45 LT, Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules CH-07 took off from Melsbroek Air Base as flight BAF667 and also made a low level flyby over RWY 25L before beginning its final farewell flight over Belgium. After their farewell flights over Belgium, both transport aircraft headed towards Charleroi Airport for a final landing as Belgian Air Force transport aircraft.
After these farewell flights three Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft were still parked in the maintenance hangars at Melsbroek Air Base: CH-01, CH-11 and CH-12. All three aircraft were expected to leave Melsbroek Air Base soon.
So long ‘Mighty Herc’ and thanks for your loyal service. You will be missed!
22 December 2021
All photos copyright © Ivan Coninx unless stated otherwise.