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The vital, behind-the-scenes role of the KC-130

A KC-130 can pump 300 gallons of fuel a minute into two aircraft simultaneously.  

(CNN) -- The strength and power of the U.S. Marines' KC-130 aircraft, one of which crashed in Pakistan on Wednesday, is more subtle and less forceful than its name -- Hercules -- might suggest.

Since first entering service in 1956, the C-130 Hercules has performed a support role in combat operations. As early as 1960, some Navy models were even ski-equipped for missions in Antarctica.

The first KC-130s, with the capability to refuel other aircraft in midair, appeared in 1962.

While the Pentagon did not reveal the mission of the aircraft that crashed near Shamsi, Pakistan, the Marines' KC-130 serves two primary purposes: refueling and tactical transport.

The Air Force also uses a variation of the KC-130.

The KC-130's value has been accentuated in Afghanistan, where the most of the U.S. Marine contingent is hundreds of miles away in the north Arabian Sea.

U.S. military refueling plane crashes in Pakistan 
Map: Site of KC-130 crash 

Interactive: KC-130 

The aircraft's range of some 1,150 miles as a tanker and 3,300 miles on cargo missions gives it access to the entire war arena. In turn, the KC-130s refuel Marine helicopters and other logistical aircraft so that they can operate almost anywhere.

The latest C-130s can fly as high as 33,000 feet above the battlefield and can swoop down quickly, landing and taking off on short runways if necessary.

At approximately 100 feet long and10 feet wide and with a wingspan of nearly 133 feet, a KC-130 can weigh as much as 175,000 tons on takeoff.

Much of the plane's weight typically is in the removable 3,600-gallon stainless steel fuel tanks in its cargo bay. Two hoses and refueling pods allow the plane's personnel to pump up to 300 gallons a minute into two aircraft simultaneously, in the air or on the ground.

While its primary mission is airborne refueling, the KC-130's size and design allows U.S. commanders to use it in other ways and places, including in hostile territory.

According to the U.S. Marines, the $37 million aircraft can be used to deliver troops, cargo and equipment by parachuting them in or by landing on often imperfect airstrips.

The KC-130 can also be used evacuate casualties or fighting forces from a battle area.


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