| The French air force acquired its twelve C-130Hs between 1987 and 1990, enhancing its fleet with two used models in 1996. Carrying both conventional and special forces, the main mission of the Hercules is to transport freight and/or passengers, but they can also perform drop operations. Despite the arrival of the A400Ms and a few C-130Js, the C-130Hs still have a few years' career ahead of them and will undergo major overhaul - mainly for their avionics - in particular to keep them up to date with the latest aeronautical standards and to "respect the constraints of general air traffic beyond 2025".
The Hercules modernisation tender was awarded to the French branch of Collins Aerospace, which as project manager is tasked with managing the industrial organisation for the process. Olivier Pedron, the head of the Avionics division for France, explains that this is a "colossal" project, "an ambitious programme", which is a first for the equipment manufacturer. "Up until this programme we had only worked as an equipment manufacturer as we didn't have FRA 21J approval". This milestone was reached in January 2019 with the award of this label by the DGA (Direction Générale de l'Armement), which authorises design modification and repair operations to be carried out on a military aircraft's avionics and structure.
This is a first step before the award of EMAR 21J (European military airworthiness requirements), certification which will enable Collins Aerospace to bid for other tenders of this kind in Europe. This means that the aerospace supplier can position itself on the military aircraft retrofit and overhaul market and extend its scope by proposing new services.
A "mammoth" project
The modifications mainly cover the avionics, but the detail of the equipment has not been revealed by the equipment manufacturer. A notice from 2011 mentioned in particular the optronic sensors, improved vision systems, V/UHF radio communication resources, the integration of heads-up-displays (HUDs) and heads-down display (HDDs), PRNAV (Precision area navigation) capacity, FMS, an encrypted military GPS, onboard intercoms, cockpit voice and flight data recorders, a mapping system and more. The work may also cover the aircraft's self-protection and certain "tactical capabilities", such as observation resources, although no information was forthcoming on this subject.
Working in integrated teams with Sabena Technics, which is responsible for integrating the different systems, Collins Aerospace wants to use local partners where possible, increasing its French footprint. The first two "prototype" aircraft will be modified directly at the Sabena Technics site in Bordeaux, while the other twelve will be modified at the Atelier Industriel de l'Aéronautique site in Clermont-Ferrand.
"The aircraft has been practically 'stripped' inside", in particular to upgrade the some 50 kilometres of cables, specifies Olivier Pedron. Work began on the first plane at the start of 2018, a few months after the critical design review (CDR). The engines were reinstalled last summer and were powered up "with complete success" at the end of 2018. The first prototype is therefore getting ready to undergo a series of ground tests, in preparation for flight tests during 2019.
The objective is to deliver it immediately after the flight tests, in order to enable experiments before the aircraft is returned to the air force. The DGA is specifying that "the air force will have its 14 upgraded C-130Hs in 2025". This fleet is scheduled to be replaced "by 2030" under the Military programming law.