To speed troops and supplies into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.
Air Force has begun training C-17 Globemaster transport crews to fly airlift
operations in the dark of night, without artificial lighting.
Traditionally, this dangerous mission has been conducted mainly by MC-130 Combat
Talon aircrews of the U.S. Special Operations Command, usually in connection
with relatively small, clandestine assignments. They have been supplemented,
when necessary, by C-5 Galaxy and C-141 Starlifter crews from the Air Force’s
Air Mobility Command.
As demands for their services grew, however, Air Force leaders decided to experiment
with the movement of much larger numbers of forces and equipment at night. For
that mission, the C-17 became the platform of choice. (related story p. 37)
The tactic has produced some spectacular successes, officials said.
In November 2001, C-17s landed in the dark on a dirt runway at Camp Rhino in
Afghanistan, delivering 481 troops and 970 short tons of equipment over eight
days. It was the first-ever C-17 combat dirt landing using night-vision goggles.
In April 2003, in one of the largest airborne operations since Normandy, C-17s
dropped more than 1,000 paratroopers at night into Northern Iraq to seize an
enemy airfield. Within a few days, a full brigade—the Army’s 173rd
Airborne Brigade, based in Vincenza, Italy—was on the ground in the Kurdish-controlled
region, which had been denied to U.S. forces when neighboring Turkey refused
to allow them to pass through its territory.
The eight-hour nighttime flight from Italy’s Aviano Air Base was the
first time that the Globemaster was used to insert paratroopers during combat.
The drop included about 20 airmen who, once they hit the ground, rapidly prepared
the airfield to be used by U.S. aircraft. (related story p. 39)
“This is a historic milestone in the evolution of the C-17,” said
Air Force Gen. John W. Handy, head of the U.S. Transportation Command and the
Air Mobility Command, in a published statement.
The C-17 has been used many times in airborne training missions and was instrumental
in Afghanistan in humanitarian airdrops of food rations, but this was the first
time the Globemaster was used as a platform to insert paratroopers during combat,
Aircraft and aircrews from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.; and McChord Air
Force Base, Wash., worked closely with planners from the Tanker Airlift Control
Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., and the U.S. Central Command to execute
The airdrop “put 1,000 paratroopers on target, on time, despite the weather,”
explained Air Force Capt. Matt Meloeny, chief of standardization and evaluation
for the 62nd Air Wing’s 8th Airlift Squadron, at McChord. The 62nd conducted
“We needed to be able to see the drop zone,” he said. “There
were huge sand storms coming from the south. We had a number of different forecasters
telling us different things. It wasn’t until we were in-flight that the
final call [to go in] was made.”
The aircraft turned down their lights as much as possible to make it harder
for them to be seen by enemy ground forces, Meloeny said. “Of course,
that made it more difficult for us to see our leaders,” he said.”
As it turned out, the crews saw little sign of Iraqi forces. “My co-pilot
saw some flares off to the south,” Meloeny said. “But we’re
pretty sure that was coalition fire.”
To operate at night, the C-17 crews wore binocular-style AN/AVS-9 (F4949 Series)
NVGs, produced by ITT Industries Night Vision, of Roanoke, Va. “They definitely
helped,” he said.
The goggles are used particularly in taking off and landing at night, without
any other form of lighting, to minimize the threat from enemy ground fire. “If
they can’t see you, they can’t shoot you down,” said Air Force
Maj. Reggie Smith, chief of the AMC’s Tactical Airlift Branch for C-17s
The AMC formed a team to begin training C-17 crews in night operations in the
fall of 2001, just before the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan,
“It became evident that we had to rule the night,” he said. “The
idea was to see if we could introduce NVG operations into the ‘slick’
(non-special operations airlift) community.”
The Night Operations Team started five NVG training programs, Smith said. The
first Globemaster crew qualified in 10 days. That time period has since been
shortened to five days, he said. For its efforts, the team received a 2003 Air
Force Chief of Staff Team Excellence Award.
The standard NVG for Air Force and Navy aircraft is the F4949. The Air Force
has bought more than 5,000 of them over the past decade, said ITT Marketing
and Communications Manager Laurel Holder.
The F4949 is available in fixed-wing and rotary-wing versions, explained Jim
Soderberg, ITT’s marketing manager for the Air Force and the Air Force
Special Operations Command. The fixed-wing variety features a front-mounted
battery pack, which uses four AA alkaline batteries that allow operation for
more than 16 hours.
An optional battery-pack adapter enables connection of the fixed-wing F4949
to a rear-mounted battery pack, providing the same operational time as the rotary-wing
version when ejection is not a consideration. An optional clip-on power source
enables hand-held operation of the binoculars without use of a flight helmet.
Night vision takes the small amount of light that is available after sunset,
such as moonlight or starlight, and converts the light energy (photons) into
electrical energy (electrons).
The heart of a night-vision product is the image-intensifier tube. It consists
of three components—the photocathode, the microchannel plate, (MCP) and
the phosphor screen. The photocathode senses the smallest amount of light in
the night sky, that the human eye may not detect and converts it into electrons.
The electrons enter the MCP—a thin disk the size of a quarter—where
they are multiplied thousands of times. The electrons then strike the phosphor
screen, releasing photons and creating a characteristic green glow. The image
has been greatly intensified to a visible level of brightness. The result, Holder
said, is somewhat like watching a television screen.
The F4949 is called a third-generation night-vision system. Rudimentary night-vision
equipment—an infrared sniper scope, with a range of less than 100 yards—was
developed during World War II. In 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers established
an Engineer Research and Development Laboratory, with a Research and Photometric
Section to focus on further development of night vision. This section evolved
into the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate.
In the mid-1960s, the directorate, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va., fielded
the first generation of passive night-vision devices for U.S. troops, including
a Small Starlight Scope that could be mounted on a rifle or handheld. The scope
was put to use quickly in Vietnam, where U.S. forces fought an enemy that operated
Since then, scientists and engineers have developed a second and a third generation
of night-vision gear. In the early 1980s, ITT fielded the AN/AVS-6 Aviators’
Night Vision Imaging System, allowing rotary-wing aircrews to operate at night.
The F4949, with rotary and fixed-wing versions, was introduced in 1992. More
than 13,000 of them are in service in 34 countries worldwide, Holder said.
The Air Mobility Command, for its part, is planning to expand its night-operations
capability, Meloeny said. “We want to move quickly to qualify all of our
aircrews for NVG,” he said.