/ March 6, 2009 at 5:00 AM

The Air Force has ordered inspections of its entire C-130 Hercules cargo hauler fleet after discovering a potential issue with wing bolts, according to service officials.

Each aircraft must undergo a two- to four-hour inspection before returning to flight, an Air Force Special Operations Command official told Inside the Air Force this morning. The command operates specially configured Hercs that are used to insert troops into combat zones and refuel helicopters.

The mandatory inspections include newer Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft in addition to the legacy C-130s, which make up the bulk of the Air Force's inventory. The oldest Air Force Hercules aircraft entered service in the early 1960s. The newer J-models entered the fleet in the late 1990s.

C-130s are the backbone of intratheater airlift and are used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to transport troops and cargo.

“Despite the size of the fleet, inspections are proceeding rapidly, and while this is a significant effort for our maintainers we currently don’t expect any major disruptions to essential airlift operations,” Vicki Stein, an Air Force spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail today.

The C-130 becomes the latest Air Force airframe to fall victim to potentially serious structural issues. A portion of the A-10 Warthog attack jet fleet remains grounded due to cracks in the wings. The service also grounded much of its F-15 fighter fleet for months in 2007 and 2008 after an Eagle snapped in two during a training mission.

-- Marcus Weisgerber