Dan Rattiner's Stories

Church of C-130: Hamptons’ New Cargo Plane Religion

The dark green four-engine propeller plane lumbers slowly through the skies over the Hamptons. All of us are familiar with it. It’s seen about once a month sniffing around up there, banking into a slow turn over the ocean—one wing high, the other low—then leveling to head off over the hills of, for example, Bridgehampton. Soon, it’s off into the distance and gone.

It’s been up there doing this for more than 20 years. It does seem impossible that those four propellers can hold it up and move it along the way they do. It also seems possible to race it. You might be driving along on the six-lane Sunrise Highway and see it off to the right over the ocean, heading west to east over the little villages and towns of the South Fork—just as you are. It is so big and heavy and seems very slow. On the straightaway you accelerate to 65 miles an hour, 70, 75. But you can’t keep up. It’s an optical illusion that you thought you could.

Many people on the East End know what this plane is all about. Some don’t. It’s a military plane, based at the Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, an important part—probably the most important part—of the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard based there. This unit consists of several hundred highly skilled men and women trained for sea rescues.

A ship off Nova Scotia gets in trouble in heavy seas. The call for help comes. The 106th, like firemen, race out onto the runway and take off in this HC-130 “Hercules” cargo plane, always full of fuel and rescue equipment and supplies and it heads out, leading a team of helicopters, refueling the helicopters in the air along the way, until they get to the site of the trouble. Men and women in the sea may be in life rafts getting thrown around. Men and women onboard may be hanging on as the ship sinks. Men and women in lifejackets may be splashing in the water. The rescue team throws ropes out of the choppers and down toward the sea, and then they themselves, laden with equipment, rappel down these ropes to rescue those in distress and get them hauled back up into the safety of the sky. Then the choppers, their job done, head back toward land and, with the C-130 shepherding them along, set down at hospital helicopter pads where paramedics take the injured into the emergency rooms.

The 106th Air Rescue Wing has completed many rescues over the years, both military and civilian. The military orders it out over the Atlantic whenever there is a manned space launch. It services the entire eastern seaboard. It is the only rescue unit on this coast.

Personally, I view the occasional, lazy flight of the C-130 over eastern Long Island to be for pilot training. It’s clear from the way the plane turns and banks that it is not off and going somewhere. I imagine a young trainee in there at the stick, with a more experienced pilot sitting alongside.

“Easy, easy. Don’t rush it. All right. Let’s take her home. But at Gabreski, I’ll bring her in.”

I also think these flights might be for the airplane itself. It’s at least 20 years old. C-130s have been hauling cargo, troops and tanks for the military for more than 50 years. You’ve got to keep them in shape by flying them, or, when needed, fixing them and then flying to make sure whatever you fixed stays fixed.

But then there are others who have a whole different view of this C-130. They see it as a god and they have created a church to worship it. The church is called the Church of the C-130, and I recently visited it in Hampton Bays on a Monday to attend a service.

The church is not one of our larger ones. It is on Starbuck Avenue in Hampton Bays. It’s a white clapboard affair with a large assembly hall inside and a cupola up top with a big bell that clangs to call the faithful to the service, which is every Monday at 4 p.m.

Inside, as you sit in the pews, the sun streams through the tall windows lighting up the colorful stained-glass C-130 in the center with little images of helicopters flying underneath.

And up front, at a podium, the priest, garbed in a long white cloak with a painting of a propeller on the back, raises his arms to invoke the C-130.

“Oh hear us, Great C-130, come to us, come rescue us, for we have sinned and we wish to repent under the sheltering wings of your great masterful omnipotence. Come to us, Great C-130.”

The priest then makes a buzzing noise with his lips for a while, invoking the sound of an engine, actually four engines, to induce its appearance. This chant is repeated.

“Oh hear us, Great C-130, come to us, for we have sinned and we wish to repent under the sheltering wings of your great masterful omnipotence. Come rescue us, Great C-130.”

And if that doesn’t do it, then it is repeated again and again.

Finally, sure enough, the congregation knows the Great C-130 is coming. They don’t see it out the windows. But they hear it, in the west, a very soft rumbling sound far off. After a while, through the stained glass they can see the speck in the sky, far away, low over the trees.

Up in the belfry, the great bell starts to clang. And it clangs and clangs and clangs. And the congregation rises.

“Over here,” they shout. “Over here, oh Great C-130. Your wings are our shelter, your engines our salvation. Over here, come to us.”

And indeed, the plane is coming. It is now quite visible, heavily laden, perhaps with punishments, perhaps with forgiveness, for we know not until it gets here.

“Your wings are fabulous, your cockpit sparkling, your tail stiff and straight, your fuselage a temple.”

And the priest says this over and over.

Soon, the C-130 comes closer and louder. Sometimes there are helicopters under it. Sometimes not.

“Your wings are fabulous, your cockpit sparkling, your tail stiff and straight, your fuselage a temple.”

“Do you come with your angels?” the congregation chants. “Do you come alone? We beseech you, oh Great C-130, do you come to forgive? Do you come to punish? Oh Great Redeemer, we beseech you to come to us, come rescue us and accept our blessings and prayers and requests for forgiveness. For we have strayed and sinned and we have lost our way.”

The next part of this invocation is drowned out by the engines of the plane as it roars low over the temple. This is the traditional roaring low over the temple. So we don’t know whether this is a forgiveness, a lecture, a condemning of the sinners to doom or a celebration of our prayers. Only the Priest knows. And he tells us.

“We are all forgiven. You may sit.”

And with that, the C-130 roars overhead and then slowly fades away off to the east, apparently in search of other worshipers. Or anyone drowning. It’s one or the other.

The congregation then sits for the next five minutes in silence, thinking about things. And then the priest says they can go home, and so they do.

I understand a new church is in formation in Amagansett.

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