Operation Weatherman - Saving the RAF's C-130Js

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The story of a freak hailstorm at Kandahar airbase, Afghanistan back in April of this year has been widely covered, but few details have been revealed about the full extent of the damage to fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters parked on the ground.

Golf ball-sized hailstones peppered the coalition airfield on April 23, with press reports suggesting that hundreds of aircraft had been seriously damaged and even written off. But now details have emerged about some of the more serious aspects of the incident.

For the U.K. Royal Air Force, the day proved particularly disastrous. When engineers inspected aircraft in the aftermath of the storm they discovered that the RAF’s five based C-130J Hercules had suffered “unprecedented damage.”

The hail damaged wings, flying controls, and fuselages. More than 850 aircraft panels were damaged leaving five aircraft – approximately one-fifth of the RAF’s fleet of Hercules – unavailable for theatre flight operations.

blog post photo
Picture Credit: Tony Osborne / Aviation Week

Details of the operation to repair the aircraft, dubbed Operation Weatherman have been described in the citation of an award from the RAF Chief of the Air Staff to Marshall Aerospace, the U.K. company which has looked after the U.K.’s Hercules fleet since the 1960s and helped to return the damaged aircraft back to service.

Details of the emergency operation were revealed at the Hercules Operators Conference in Atlanta last month. Working jointly with Lockheed Martin, Marshall and RAF engineers replaced damaged ailerons with those from surplus C-130K airframes, requiring technical work to see if the two were compatible. The work carried out in Afghanistan took two months and allowed four of the five aircraft to then return to the U.K. for repairs. The fifth aircraft was deemed fit for operations after replacement of its ailerons.

Once the four aircraft returned to the U.K. they went straight into the hangar in Cambridge where engineers assessed the damage to the 851 panels and began replacing components which are rarely replaced through the life of the C-130. The examinations added almost 50% additional areas of damage over those noted by the initial in-country inspection. They found that each aircraft had been hit around 2,000 times. The aircraft went through maintenance and four of the five aircraft returned to operations. The fifth aircraft which remained in Afghanistan has also since returned home and is undergoing pre-planned depth maintenance.

The citation from Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford says: “Their [Marshall Aerospace’s] ability to balance competing priorities through flexible planning and resourcing, willingness to innovate, and strong project management, made the critical difference and resulted in all five damaged aircraft returning to service as planned.

The hailstorm damaged other RAF types including the second of the RAF’s new BAe 146-200QC airlifters ordered as part of an urgent operational requirement. The aircraft had only been in theater one day, and was about to embark on its first operational mission when the hailstorm struck. A single BAe 125 of No.32 (The Royal) Squadron was badly damaged and deemed not airworthy according to U.S. Marines who assisted in its dismantling.

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