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Talking Bird: A Hercules by Another Name   By Tom Hildreth

The consumer of today has at his fingertips a tremendous amount of communicative ability. He can literally walk down the street with a small device in his hand and quickly establish voice contact with another person, or make a digital connection with the Internet. These capabilities are due primarily to the evolutionary miniaturization of electronic circuitry. This technical advancement has also made it possible for civilian communications companies to launch numerous satellites into orbit for public access purposes. Accompanied by an effective increase in bandwidth in residential telephone circuits due to sophisticated data compression and fiber-optic technology, these developments have made Internet access a reality for the public. Communication on a global scale wasn't always this easy.

Thirty years ago the U.S. Air Force was tasked with setting up mobile command posts on a global basis. The resulting communications systems were large and expensive. They required a great amount of manpower to deploy, and were slow and devoid of graphics. But they did work, and quickly proved to be a valuable asset to American military commanders. The Defense Communications Agency (DCA) was an inter-service organization that provided a global standardized network of teletype, voice, and fax and data circuits known as the Defense Communications System (DCS). The DCA ran the show, as anyone who ever screwed up on watch will tell you.

The Air Force was quick to utilize its aviation assets as part of the solution to the communications problem at hand. The Air Force Communications Service (AFCS) had developed a reliable system based on a suite of secure communications equipment tailored to the dimensions of the C-130 Hercules. Thus configured, the C-130 was known as "Talking Bird". In effect, field commanders were given a DCS subscriber connection no matter their global location.

Known by its military nomenclature as the MRC-108 (Mobile Radio Communications model 108), the equipment that comprised this system included encryption, radio, teletype, and switchboard modules. Climate control and power generation was also provided. The MRC-108 was a narrow band system, based on High Frequency (HF) radio principles. Because of this, it could establish communication over very long distances using ionospheric bounce. This was a necessary feature in regions of the world where landline (L/L) hookups and radio-relay stations were not available. When propagation was ideal, the HF gear operated in the Independent Sideband (ISB) mode, at which time it was possible to simultaneously transmit a multi-channel teletype tone group (VFTG), a fax channel, and a voice channel. The VFTG had a capability of twelve or sixteen channels of teletype running at 75 baud each, or somewhat slower when encrypted. When faced with seriously degraded propagation or jamming, "Talking Bird" could resort to the Continuous Wave (C/W) technique to communicate manually in Morse code.

Talking Bird Talking Bird (60-0308) at Keesler AFB, MS in 1966. Photo: Tom Hildreth

The C-130 Hercules was an ideal aircraft for the job of transporting the "Talking Bird" equipment. The Herk's well-known Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) ability enabled the equipment to be brought into remote areas totally lacking in infrastructure. The first "Talking Bird" deployment occurred in September 1962, when AFCS supported earthquake recovery efforts in Iran. The following year, the 2nd Mobile Communications Group went on the air from Saudi Arabia with "Talking Bird". The subject of the accompanying photograph is C-130B #60-0308. It had just arrived at Keesler AFB, Mississippi when this 1966 photo was taken by the author, who was a two-striper (A/2C) in training to be an AFCS Telecommunications Systems Controller (AFSC 307X0). Not seen in the photo are the Mobile Comm troops, about 100 feet to the right rear of the aircraft, who quickly erected antennas for the radio gear. Records indicate that 60-0308 was assigned to the 313th Tactical Airlift Wing at Forbes AFB, Kansas at the time, though it was likely on assignment to the 2nd Mobile Comm Group at Warner-Robins AFB, Georgia. (It eventually went to the Royal Jordanian Air Force.) The object of the day's activities was to get on the air from the deployed location at a specified time, and this often required a bit of hustle. Not as convenient as flipping open a cellphone and punching the speed dialer, but the messages did get through.

Tom Hildreth
72 Mountain View Street
Chester, VT 05143-9497
NO CALLS PLEASE


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