Air Force Special Operators Welcome New Cargo Planes

By Grace V. Jean
Air Force special operators have been flying C-130 aircraft for more than 40 years. Now, finally, the fleet is being upgraded to the digital J-model.

The Air Force all told is buying 122 C-130Js, of which 85 are slated to replace Air Force Special Operation Command’s MC-130 fleets, beginning with the MC-130E and MC-130P tankers. That number also includes 16 MC-130Js that will be converted to AC-130J gunships.

From the outside, apart from the six-bladed propeller, it is difficult to tell a J-model from the previous four-bladed variants that Lockheed Martin Corp. has been building for more than half a century.

Though the airframe itself is largely unchanged from when the first production Hercules rolled off the assembly line in 1956, the MC-130J’s mission systems are radically different — enough to merit establishing a new squadron to bring the airplane into the fold.

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us to field a new aircraft and a new capability,” said Lt. Col. Paul Pendleton, commander of the 522nd Special Operations Squadron. The unit was created in April as the first MC-130J Combat Shadow II squadron. “Being on the leading edge of that is very exciting,” he said.

The first MC-130J aircraft is due to arrive later this month at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
The C-130J is in full-rate production at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Marietta, Ga., where close to 8,000 workers are assembling 36 aircraft per year.

The MC-130J is the newest variant of the Super Hercules line. When the special operations community sought to modernize its tankers, which are designed to refuel helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, engineers at Lockheed Martin took the Marine Corps’ KC-130J and worked with special operations personnel to customize it.

The MC-130J will refuel helicopters and the tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey via a hose-and-drogue system. On the tarmac, the plane can also transfer fuel to ground vehicles — a capability that the marines use frequently, said Jim Grant, vice president of business development for air mobility and special operations programs at Lockheed Martin.

This is the first time that AFSOC will receive a C-130 that has been 100 percent modified on the assembly line. Before, AFSOC would take delivery and then would have to ship it to another contractor for several more months of modifications into a special operations-configured system.

“By doing it in our production line, we’re able to save them $7 million to $8 million per airplane,” Grant told National Defense.

Five MC-130Js had been delivered to the Air Force for testing. After the first one is fielded at Cannon Air Force Base at the end of September, two more aircraft will arrive in the weeks following. Within 15 months, the 522nd Special Operations Squadron will be outfitted with all of its aircraft.

In the meantime, Pendleton is focused on preparing the squadron. Pilots are coming from legacy MC-130P squadrons, which are the first to convert to the new MC-130Js. They will account for half of the 522nd, with the remaining personnel coming from other parts of the Air Force, to include KC-130 and C-21 fleet pilots along with some AC-130 gunship operators.

“Because of the new capabilities of the airplane, we’re seeking to expand beyond the stovepipe cultures of the past,” said Pendleton. Units that fly the MC-130H, MC-130P and MC-130E all have specific missions. For example, MC-130P units focus on a primary task of refueling special operations helicopters and other vertical-lift assets.  

“What we’re going to try to do is cross boundaries of the legacy communities,” explained Pendleton. “We’ll posture the squadron first, and then the community at large, to take on the whole gamut of MC-130 capabilities in equal roles so that we can be employed anytime, anywhere.”

That means the squadron will focus on the refueling mission but also be equally as adept at transporting special operations forces in and out of dangerous areas, he said.

“We have to be smart about that — that we don’t bite off too much or more than we can chew,” said Pendleton. “I think we’re in a good position to execute that and manage the risk accordingly.”

The J-model features a number of advancements designed to improve mission capability. The aircraft’s new split-shaft propeller system gives crews 25 percent more power. Pilots can operate the engine without running the propellers at full tilt. That means the aircraft is more efficient in the air, explained Pendleton.

The squadron also can load or unload forces in the back without enduring the propeller blast. Even at low-speed ground idle on legacy models, the moving blades kicked up winds reaching 90 miles per hour, said Pendleton. “It’s a huge deal in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where you’re blowing dust everywhere, and you create a huge brownout behind the airplane. Now we won’t do that anymore,” he said.

A more powerful engine and lower aircraft weight will give crews the capability to cover 40 percent more range or to carry 40 percent more payload, he said.

“Special operations have been operating in hot and high-altitude environments. Because of the kick in propulsion, we can now operate at full payloads in those high, hot type conditions,” said Grant.

The new cargo handling system in the back of the plane allows loadmasters to arrange and configure pallets more quickly, and gives them the ability to drop high-speed loads. The ramp and door can open while the aircraft is flying at 250 knots versus the previous limit of 150 knots.  

Up in the flight deck, the cockpit has been computerized. A heads-up display provides pilots with 90 percent of the information they need to fly without looking down at other monitors. They can troubleshoot circuit breakers electronically, so they no longer have to peer over their shoulders at panels or search the cockpit for specific dials. “It’s keeping the pilots focused more outside, which is a huge boost for us because we fly very low level, and that’s where we need our pilots looking,” said Pendleton.

The J-model reduces the number of crewmembers needed to operate the aircraft. Previous models required two pilots, a navigator and a flight engineer, who spent the entire sortie staring at the aircraft gauges to prevent pilots from over-torquing the engines. Because of the automation and heads-up displays in the cockpit of the J-model, the aircraft can be operated solely by the two pilots. Special operators prefer a third crewmember up on the flight deck — a combat systems operator who will monitor information coming into the cockpit and who will be responsible for data entry into the computers as the pilots fly at low altitudes.

“It’s really a running dialogue between the three of them when it comes to terrain,” said Pendleton.

Once the J-model aircraft begin to arrive at the base, the crews, who have been training on the EC-130J airplanes belonging to a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit, will go through training to acclimate to their new variant. They will have to learn the mission computer software and become acquainted with helicopter and tilt-rotor air refueling pods and controls on the aircraft.  

“We are excited to get the airplane out here and to employ it,” said Pendleton. “Our SOF users are really looking forward to it hitting the streets as well.”

The 9th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., is next in line for conversion. It will start receiving airplanes in 2013.                                       

Topics: Aviation, Transport Aircraft

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