06 February 2015

How the Lockheed Hercules Helped Open Alaska to Oil Exploration

The Lockheed L-100 prototype loading in Fairbanks. Note the Alaska titles.
In the spring of 1965, there were seven different oil exploration groups prospecting on Alaska's North Slope and they had run into significant logistical difficulties in bringing in not just the equipment needed but also basic supplies for the personnel. The only way at the time was to bring it in on ocean-going barges that only had access to Alaska's northern coast a few weeks at a time during the summer thanks to the extensive ice pack of the Arctic Ocean. There were no roads or railways that connected the North Slope to the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage further south. The Yukon River was the first geographic barrier between Fairbanks and where the oil was, but even more significant was the Brooks Range that stretched east to west across Alaska for over 700 miles with peaks as high as 9,000 feet. A straight line distance from Fairbanks to the North Slope is easily 500 miles across the most remote and untouched wilderness in the United States. Engineers for the oil companies involved with North Slope exploration had devised a massive caterpillar land train, but it would cost over $1 million to build just one and it would take a year to transit from Fairbanks to the North Slope, threading its way through the mountain passes in the Brooks Range. During the summer months, no one was quite sure if the tundra could support the weight of the proposed massive land train. That left airlift as the only solution but in 1965 there were no civilian aircraft that had the right combination of load carrying capacity, ability to take in outsize loads, the performance to get into and out of what would be very short gravel airstrips, not to mention an ability to keep working in the extreme Alaskan winters. 

The answer came from Charlie Willis, who had been the head of Alaska Airlines since 1957. The year prior, Lockheed had flown the prototype L-100, a civilian cargo version of the C-130 Hercules. The L-100 was basically a demilitarized version of the C-130E and made its first flight on 20 April 1964. Lockheed was eager for commercial sales of the L-100 and Willis struck a deal with Lockheed to wet-lease the prototype in what became known as the "Thirty Day Miracle"- with only Alaska Airlines titles on the landing gear sponsons, the wet-lease included not just the aircraft but the Lockheed pilots and crew as well. This way there would be no delay in getting an Alaska crew up to speed on the new aircraft. 

During the four-week airlift to the North Slope, the lone L-100 prototype moved over 2 million pounds of out-sized cargo to improvised air strips all along the North Slope. Charlie Willis was thrilled with the lease, exclaiming to the Alaska press covering the airlift "This aircraft can airlift heavy machinery, large earth moving equipment, and prefabricated structures on the same day at less cost by conventional surface means." The first company to benefit from the airlift was Richfield Oil who struck oil at Prudhoe Bay, sparking the Alaska Oil Rush. The Prudhoe Bay oil field is the largest not just in the United States but in North America as well. With over 25 billion barrels of oil, this field is more than double the size of the next biggest oil field in the United States which is in East Texas and extends to the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of 1965, five oil fields and eleven gas fields had been opened up on the North Slope. The challenge then became how to get the oil and gas from the North Slope and the only economically feasible option would be the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that would run from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez in the south. 

One of Alaska International's Herks that supported pipeline construction.
Alaska International Airlines had ordered the Lockheed L-100 after seeing it in action during the "Thirty Day Miracle". When construction of the pipeline began in March 1974, AIA devoted six L-100s to airlift missions to support the pipeline contstruction. The six aircraft were moving 1 million pounds of cargo *each* day into improvised gravel air strips along the pipeline construction route. From heavy equipment to fuel to prefabricated housing for the workers, AIA's L-100s averaged 12 hours of flying each day, some aircraft flying as much as 21 hours in a day. The aircraft were indispensable to the construction effort and along with the "Thirty Day Miracle" part of the lore that has surrounded the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. 

Source: Herk: Hero of the Skies by Joseph Earl Dabney. Copple House Books, 1979, pp 231-249. Photos: Lockheed Martin Archives

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