U.S. Air Force Special Operations Aircraft at EAA’s AirVenture 2021
EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 featured a great deal of American military aircraft. Between active military airplanes, helicopters, UAVs and their crews, plus warbirds – which are retired military aircraft now owned and operated by civilians – a great collection of historic aircraft was assembled. Whether on static display or in the air, there was plenty of significant aviation history to see during the week-long show. This is the first of a two-part review of active military aircraft and their missions, which were displayed.
Quite surprising was the involvement from current military units. This year, the Oshkosh air shows were filled with active military flying displays… in fact, for an enthusiast of military aviation, the shows rivalled any military base shows that I’ve seen over many years, with few exceptions. Special operations aircraft tend to stay out of the public’s view, as many of their missions are classified, or they’re deployed somewhere around the world. Not so at AirVenture!
Examples of most of the aircraft types operated by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and a workhorse Army Special Operations heavy lift helicopter were open for all to tour. Crewmembers were on hand to answer most questions, and gave a human side to these machines. The “community” as some referred to the Special Operations Command, deploys for humanitarian missions as well as during war fighting. In fact, immediately after the AirVenture ended, events in Afghanistan required several special operations aircraft be active during the Kabul evacuation airlift, just before the end of that conflict.
Here in Part 1, we’ll look at Air Force Special Operations Command and the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment participation. The Air Force presented a pair of flying demonstrations on Thursday and Friday of AirVenture, and were present in a Theatre in the Woods presentation over the weekend too. Here is a list of what we saw:
The AC-130J Ghostrider’s missions include “close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance” according to the Air Force. The aircraft (ultimately numbering about three dozen airframes) is a heavily modified Lockheed C-130J Hercules transport, with advanced navigation and communication equipment, plus an arsenal of weaponry which includes cannons, bombs and missiles. This fifth generation “gunship” is a descendant of the original AC-119s, AC-47s and AC-130s of the 1970s Vietnam War. It carries a crew of at least nine, and this variant was initially fielded in 2019.
The MC-130H Combat Talon II is an earlier version of Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules that is used for “infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of ground forces in contested or denied areas”. Equipped with terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radars, an electronic countermeasures suite and an advanced navigation system, the aircraft can fly a few hundred feet above the ground to deliver troops and supplies via precise airdrop or via landing and takeoff from rough fields. It carries air refueling pods to refuel special operations helicopters too. The type has been in use since the 1992, although the original version of this MC-130 flew during the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. The Combat Talon II is scheduled to be fully replaced by the new MC-130J Commando II by 2024.
The HC-130J Combat King II replaced older Search and Rescue versions of the HC-130, starting around 2010. The aircraft can offload fuel to helicopters in the air, offload fuel to other aircraft on the ground, and receive fuel from other Air Force tanker jets in the air too In fact, it is a modified KC-130J aerial tanker and can carry some 9,000 gallons of fuel. The primary role of the HC-130J is the “only dedicated fixed-wing Personnel Recovery platform in the Air Force inventory”. Operating in the dark, with lights out, is normal for the crews. Air Force Search and Rescue had its start during World War II, and versions of the C-130 have been in use since the Vietnam War.
The EC-130J Commando Solo III is a rarely-see aircraft, operated by the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. Only a trio of aircraft are operated, although a total of six are/were planned. Its special mission is to conduct “airborne information operations via digital and analog radio and television broadcasts.” in the words of the AFSOC. The aircraft replaced older EC-130Es, and before that, EC-121 Constellations were utilized during the Vietnam War. In 2018, the equipment aboard the aircraft was upgraded to disseminate information via radio and cellular means too.
The C-145A Combat Coyote is a turboprop twin used for the Combat Aviation Advisor program. The mission of the C-145A “is to enable CAA special air mobility Airmen to conduct U.S. Special Operations Command’s Aviation Foreign Internal Defense and Aviation Security Cooperation missions. AFSOC’s CAAs are tasked to assess, train, advise and assist foreign aviation forces in airpower employment, sustainment and force integration.”, according to an Air Force information release. The five C-145As in the Air Force inventory were built by Poland’s PZL Mielec as the M-28 light transport. The aircraft is unpressurized and can operate from unprepared airfields.
The Dornier C-146A Wolfhound’s mission is “to provide U.S. Special Operations Command flexible and responsive operational movement of small teams and cargo in support of Theater Special Operations Commands. Airlift missions are conducted by Air Force Special Operations Command aircrews to prepared and semi-prepared airfields around the world.” according to the U.S. Air Force. The pressurized turboprop twin is a military version of the early 1990s vintage Dornier 328 airliner, and can carry passengers and/or freight. Twenty are in the Air Force inventory, and are operated worldwide.
The Air Force Special Operations Command’s U-28A Draco is a modified Pilatus PC-12 turboprop. Its mission is to provide “airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of humanitarian operations, search and rescue, and special operations missions.” according to an Air Force Fact Sheet. It can act as an airborne radio and data relay station, relaying voice and data communications as well as video data too. The fleet of twenty eight aircraft operate with a crew of three.
The MC-12W Liberty is a Hawker Beechcraft Super King Air 350 modified into an information collection, processing and dissemination tool for ground-based commanders. L-3 is the contractor that packaged these capabilities together for the Air Force. The thirteen airframes are now operated by the Oklahoma Air National Guard. An Air Force Fact Sheet states that “The MC-12W capability supports all aspects of the Air Force Irregular Warfare mission (counter insurgency, foreign internal defense and building partnership capacity). Medium-to low-altitude ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is a core mission for the Air Force.
One of the AFSOC’s most attention-getting aircraft at AirVenture was the CV-22B Osprey. The on board terrain following radar allows the aircraft to fly 200 feet above the ground at high speed, and even lower at reduced speeds, according to a pilot briefing given during a planeside interview. The AFSOC flew a pair of Ospreys during their aerial demonstrations late in the week, trailing behind an HC-130J refueler at times, and in formation at other times. Initial operating capability was during 2009, and 54 aircraft have been ordered. This type replaced the MH-53 Pave Low/Jolly Green Giants of Vietnam and Gulf War fame.
The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Aviation Command sent a Boeing MH-47G Chinook heavy helicopter for static display. This is the largest heavy-lift helicopter in the Army inventory. Equipped with in-flight refueling equipment, infrared and radar sensors for high speed, low altitude flight and twice the fuel load of a standard CH-47F Chinook, it is also heavily armed with machine guns and carries a crew of five. Upgrades to the helicopter include new rotor blades and the Rockwell Collins degraded visual environment pilotage system (DVEPS) which fuses systems like laser radar and infrared vision together, as an aid to pilots who operate in thick dust, snow and smoke.
According to an Air Force Fact Sheet, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper “is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft”. It is a whole system… with aircraft, ground control station with pilots and support crew, satellite links, maintainers and equipment, to keep the Reaper ready for 24-hour long missions. There are fifty Reapers, which carry synthetic aperture radar, an infrared and daylight TV camera, laser designator and illuminator, plus various weaponry when tasked.
The RQ-11 Raven is a hand-launched, lightweight reconnaissance system operated by a crew of two Airmen. It can carry an infrared or an electro-optical payload that allows real time surveillance and targeting information. The aircraft weighs in at under five pounds with a camera payload included. First deployed in 2004, it has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. A simulated mission was displayed on a rugged laptop, which is used in the field.
The RQ-20 Puma is made by AeroVironment and has been in use with the AFSOC since it was ordered in 2008. Normal endurance is two hours at a speed of 23 miles per hour. The aircraft can carry infrared or electro-optical sensors for reconnaissance.