The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has started a process of recapitalisation of its ageing aircraft fleet, many of which are specially modified C-130 Hercules that date back to the Vietnam era. With demand for special operations growing the replacement of these aircraft is a major priority for the AFSOC.
Providing air support to special operations for the European and African theatres is the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) based at RAF Mildenhall. The 352nd is made up of two flying squadrons, the 67th Special Operations Squadron and the 7th Special Operations Squadron. In line with the modernisation of the AFSOC fleet both squadrons have started the process of transitioning to new aircraft types, the MC-130J Commando II for the 67th SOS and the CV-22B Osprey for the 7th SOS. This transition will also see the number of aircraft operate by the 352nd roughly double and an increase in personnel from 780 to 1,200 by 2014.
The placement of the aircraft in the UK, especially the Ospreys, has been a controversial subject for the AFSOC. The focus of the 352nd has been moving from Europe to Northern Africa in recent years and the Senate Appropriation Committee believes the aircraft would be better placed at Moron Air Base in Spain with the Marine MV-22s already there or to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy which has served as an important operating base for operations in Northern Africa in recent times. The Senate Appropriation Committee has asked that the AFSOC reconsidered their decision and may go as far as blocking any further funding.
Colonel Christopher Ireland, the 352nd Special Operations Group Commander, when talking about the about to the Osprey was keen to highlight the training advantages of having them in the UK.
“We are the only unit stationed in Europe as part of US European Command designed to provide specialised air power to not only US but also to coalition forces as well. So, from a NATO perspective, and its specialised forces, we are able to work alongside them and bring an aviation component and flavour to ongoing ground or naval operations; and that’s not only from a training perspective here in Europe but also for NATO and its operations in Afghanistan.”
“The training and relationships we build here in Europe in a benign environment, those carry forward and we are able to capitalise on those operationally as well.”
With the majority of the work required to base the Osprey at RAF Mildenhall having been completed, including installing a simulator that cost $6.5 million alone, it may not be practical to relocate the aircraft to either Moron or Sigonella. An ongoing study into the potential to consolidate DOD infrastructure in Europe is due to report back in December 2013 and may play a part in the decision on if to relocate the Ospreys or not.
CV-22B Osprey and 7th SOS
The 7th SOS operates the 1980s era MC-130H Combat Talon II that is predominantly used for infiltration, exfiltration and resupply missions. With its transition to the CV-22B Osprey it moves from fixed wing to tilt-rotor operations and gives the 352nd back its vertical lift capability six years after the MH-53 Pave Lows of the 21st SOS were deactivated. As the Ospreys become operational the 7th SOS MC-130Hs will be redistributed to other SOG units who still operate the type.
The first pair of CV-22B Ospreys (11-0057 and 11-0058) for the 7th SOS arrived at RAF Mildenhall on the 23rd June 2013. It is expected that a further two will arrived in September 2013, three in February 2014 and the final three in August 2014.
Like many aircraft that have taken a different approach to flight the Osprey has had a difficult introduction to service but it is clear the design offers advantages over the other aircraft types. Its ability to land vertically and also to cruise at 230 knots at high altitude are its strongest assets and these attributes allowed it to rescue 32 personnel stranded in Afghanistan where other aircraft wouldn’t have been able to. The Osprey’s performance allowed it to fly above 15,000 feet in the ‘hot and high’ environment to clear extremely bad weather that would have prevented other vertical lift aircraft from flying. The 800 nautical mile mission lasted four hours was completed without the need to refuel.
The crew for the Osprey consists of a pilot, co-pilot and two flight engineers. The two flight engineers fill very different roles, though, with one dealing with the mission, aircraft performance, time on target and radio navigation whilst the other focuses on threats to the aircraft and the cargo.
Flying the Osprey has required pilots like Captain Mark Hamilton, who is the flight lead for the 7th SOS and a former MH-53 pilot, to rethink how they fly when they first transition to the Osprey.
“The transition from a helicopter to an airplane was fairly unique as I was pretty much trained on a 90 knot mind-set, and all of a sudden you fly up to 230, 240, 250 [knots] on any given day. There is certainly a mind-set shift but the Air Force’s training programme that we follow, especially in AFSOC, is outstanding, so the training you get makes that transition easy.”
“The Air Force’s assignment system and our leaders have done an excellent job of getting the right mix to fly this airplane. Some of the initial cadre were certainly former MH-53 pilots to take away that experience from assault platforms but since then, we still have those initial cadre guys, but we’re now getting former C-130 guys and former Talon pilots. That integration and synchronisation of those skill-sets creates a better product for our customers, our partner nations and ultimately delivers the best product.”
It wasn’t only the pilots who has to rethink their mind-set when it came to the Osprey, the tilt-rotor nature of the aircraft where the definition between a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft becomes blurred, did present a unique problem to the MoD when dealing with the UK’s Low Fly System (UKLFS).
“There is a rotary-wing block and a fixed-wing block and we have an aircraft that transits the two, so it creates a different set of processes, procedures and deconflictions.” said Colonel Christopher Ireland, the 352nd Special Operations Group Commander.
After being briefed on how the Osprey is operated and what it can and cannot do, the MoD came up with new procedures to allow the aircraft to operate safely in the UKLFS.
At present the Ospreys are training at Sculthorpe and in the STANTA range but the UKLFS in Wales, the Lake District and the Highlands will be used in the future, along with the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA).
MC-130J Commando II and 67th SOS
The 67th SOS operates the Vietnam era MC-130P Combat Shadow that provides air refuelling, air drop, cargo and personnel transport for special operations. They are transitioning to the MC-130J Commando II, an all-new aircraft based on the Super Hercules. As the MC-130Ps are withdrawn from service they will be flown to and then stored in the ‘Boneyard’ at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.
The 67th SOS received its first MC-130J (10-5714) on the 7th June and this was followed by a second (09-6210) on the 15th July. Both aircraft were initially delivered to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, where the acceptance flight and maintenance acceptance process were completed. Both were then flown to RAF Mildenhall by Major Rick Hollinger of 67th SOS. A total of 12 aircraft will be deployed over the next five year (currently it is planned only one of the initial will remain with the 67th and the other will return to Cannon AFB).
The MC-130J will carry out all the roles the MC-130P currently performs.
“All the missions we have here [RAF Mildenhall] we can do with the J model. We can do helicopter refuelling, tiltrotor refuelling, we can receive fuel from the KC-135s, short field landings, low level, infiltration, exfiltration, rapid off-load, rapid on-load, airdrop, heavy airdrop, container airdrop, personnel airdrop, we can do it all.” said Major Hollinger.
The J model, with its four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 turboprops and six-bladed composite propellers, offers a greater level of efficiency over the P model and gives the crew the flexibility on how to make best use of this. For example they could choose to either fly 20% faster than the P model to get to a location as fast as possible or they could use it to carry an extra 10,000lbs of fuel or cargo over the P model. On the inside the increases in efficiently continue with an enhanced cargo-handling system which requires only a single loadmaster to operate. The biggest changes are in the cockpit where the analogue controls have been replaced with multi-functional displays along with the addition of head-up displays.
The glass cockpit incorporating a digital moving map and integrated systems has meant the crew complement change from four officers (pilot, co-pilot, primary navigator, secondary navigator) and four enlisted (flight engineer, communications systems operator and two loadmasters) on the P model to a crew of three officers (pilot, co-pilot, combat systems operator) and up to two enlisted (loadmasters) personnel.
This has changed how the crew operates, as Major Hollinger explains:
“The workload is different; it’s a little bit hard to explain as it is a far, far different way of flying. On the MC-130P we had a larger crew, a crew of eight versus a crew of five, so it was very crew and human intensive; we were very good at getting the information from each other.”
“The MC-130J is different as we now have to integrate the computer, so we as pilots have to learn how to talk to the computer and have the computer do what we tell it to and get what we want out of it to build our situational awareness.”
The MC-130H pilots first of all convert to the C-130J at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, with the C-130J Transition Programme lasting between four to six months. This is followed by another course at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, where the pilots convert from to the C-130J to the MC-130J on a course lasting an additional four months.
The former MC-130P navigators convert to combat systems operator role on a course also run at Kirtland AFB.
Initial experience with the new aircraft is very good with a very impressive 99.5% launch rate being achieved.