A specially-modified Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-130J Hercules transport aircraft has proven to be instrumental in Tonga following the underwater volcanic eruption on January 15, 2022.

The C-130J Hercules and its crew, operated by No. 37 Squadron, embarked on a 12-hour mission on January 18, 2022 to record the damage caused by the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano.

The Hercules, serial number A97-448, is able to livestream video across the globe, and is fitted with a variety of systems as part of a prototype trial. It is one of six to be fitted with a Ka-Band satellite communications (SATCOM) antenna, which provides crew and passengers with high-speed global data connectivity.

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Commanding Officer of No. 37 Squadron Wing Commander Anthony Kay told the Department of Defence media that the aircraft left RAAF Base Richmond for the 3500 kilometer flight to Tonga.

“The crew remained over Tonga for two hours, recording video of the damage to Tongan communities and infrastructure, and livestreaming that vision to Headquarters Joint Operations Command in Australia,” Wing Commander Kay said.

“In this role, the C-130J's flexibly supplemented the imagery brought back by RAAF P-8A Poseidon and Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K Orion surveillance aircraft.

“These reconnaissance missions have built a clearer picture of what follow-on response is required during the relief effort, and where it needs to be delivered.”

The mission on January 18 was supported by No. 83 Squadron in Australia, which was able to stream the vision to the Department of Defence back in Australia.

An imagery specialist from No. 464 Squadron was also on board the Hercules and sent high-quality photos back to Australia during the flight.

“After recording imagery of Tonga, the crew then flew another 2000km to land in Auckland, before conducting another survey flight on January 20,” Wing Commander Kay said.

“Our Hercules crews have generations of experience in delivering disaster assistance across the region, but this capability is yielding new ways to support the Pacific Island community.”

In November 2021, the aircraft was used in an Australia-based trial that eventually turned into a mission to support flood-affected communities in regional New South Wales.

“The experience we’re now gaining over Tonga will further inform how we provide this capability, and how Defence is able to use No. 37 Squadron on operations,” said Wing Commander Kay.

“Given the speed we've managed to get this prototype capability ready to support operations, it was great to see how quickly the analysts at No. 83 Squadron were able to use it to best present the product.”