Secretive U.S. Air Force Transports Fly All Over the World
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In December, the Libyan air force inadvertently exposed a secretive U.S. Wolfhound transport plane on a runway. The passengers — American commandos — had arrived in the country for a covert meeting with the Libyan army. “While in Libya, members of a local militia demanded that the U.S. personnel depart,” a Pentagon spokesperson told The Guardian after photos of the soldiers spread online. “In an effort to avoid conflict, they did leave, without incident.”
But the mission was only a glimpse at a fleet of transport planes with far greater reach — and which stays far busier — than previously thought. An official history of the U.S. Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing in 2013 shows these aircraft and their cousins operate well beyond North Africa and the Middle East.
War Is Boring obtained the heavily redacted copy of the history through the Freedom of Information Act.
The historical review describes more than 10,000 secretive missions on five continents that year, including everything from shuttling around commandos to delivering humanitarian aid. All three types of aircraft carried civilian style paint schemes — generally white with various colored stripes — and registration codes to help conceal their true identities.
At that time, the wing’s 318th Special Operations Squadron was flying a combination of small, single engine PC-12 utility planes and slightly larger twin-engine C-145A Skytruck cargo haulers. The 524th Special Operations Squadron owned all of the flying branch’s Wolfhounds — as it does to this day.
For decades now, the Air Force has flown secretive missions around in the world in unmarked aircraft. Since at least the 1990s, the super secret 427th Special Operations Squadron has maintained a collection of similarly discreet aircraft.
However, the demand for the planes accelerated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Initially, the Pentagon relied heavily on private contractors to fly cargo and track down terrorists, especially in Africa. By 2008, U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air Force’s top commando headquarters began buying Pilatus PC-12s and twin engine Bombardier Q-200 transports.
The Swiss-made PC-12 can lug more than 4,000 pounds of gear or nine passengers to destinations more than 1,500 miles away. The Canadian-built Q-200 has less range, but nearly twice as much cargo capacity or almost four times as many seats depending on the internal setup. Both types can land and take off from relatively spartan airstrips.
Most importantly, the two planes had excellent records flying for airlines and air forces around the globe. These planes were exactly what one might expect to see at small and private airports. Thus, this meant both the Pentagon and its friends could more easily hide the aircraft in plain sight.
As demonstrated in the Libyan incident, the very presence of American troops can be a divisive domestic issue in many parts of the world.
On May 2, 2008, the Air Force stood up the 318th at Cannon to handle the PC-12s. More than a year later, the 524th appeared on the base to fly the Q-200s.
Dubbed “Non-Standard Aviation,” these aircraft quickly took to the skies moving people and cargo to, from and around far-flung battlefields. Due to demand, the pilots had to learn their new mounts on the job. In 2009, one Q-200 crashed in Mali after the crew decided not to refuel during a stop along the way.
At the same time, the flying branch was trying to get two more types into service. For the 524th, a batch of German-designed Dornier 328s would offer significant improvement over the aging Bombardiers. For the 318th, the Polish PZL M-28 Skytruck offered similar performance to the Q-200, but would be easier to keep in the air.
By 2010, the Air Force had poached new pilots for the aircraft from drone units and other cargo planes. The 524th even had to share its Q-200s with the 318th because pilot shortages, according to another Air Force Special Operations Command history we obtained via FOIA.
Fast forward three years and the situation had finally begun to level out. After adding new radios and other modifications to bring the planes up to military standards, the flying branch renamed its M-28s to the “C-145A Combat Coyote” and its Dorniers to the “C-146A Wolfhound,” respectively. The Air Force planned to turn the remaining PC-12 transports into even smaller U-28A spy planes with powerful night vision cameras.
And the fleet had become even more active.
According to the 27th Wing’s historical record, the PC-12s spent more than 1,000 hours flying around Europe in 2013 moving nearly 500 passengers and over 50,000 pounds of cargo. Some of the 318th’s flights delivered equipment to help build an airfield in Pristina, Kosovo.
In South America, the squadron’s transports hauled nearly 60,000 pounds of cargo, including medical supplies destined for Colombian children. The 318th also retrieved an injured U.S. Army diver.
From airfields in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Uganda, the Combat Coyotes moved supplies and gear for African Union troops fighting the remnants of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony. On top of the cargo flights, the C-145s dropped leaflets telling the LRA fighters to surrender.
All told, the 318th’s planes flew more than 8,500 missions in total, amounting to some 4,500 hours of flying time. The 524th’s Wolfhounds were even busier, with more than 9,000 flights responsible for moving 1.6 million pounds of cargo across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America. Some of these trips were “airlift in support of the United States President.”
“The squadron’s second to none opstempo [sic] continually tested the aviator’s ability to deal with constant and ever-increasing stress as it related to flying safety,” the history explained, referring to the high tempo of operations. “Members of the 524[th] … dealt with the stress of language barriers around the world on a daily basis, be it with local nationals or aviation specific professionals, like air traffic control.”
The Wolfhounds flew more than 4,000 of their missions that year specifically at the request of the top commando headquarters in charge of operations in North America. The historical review offers no details about these flights.
In November 2013, a single C-146 rushed to the Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda struck the islands. American commandos already in the country to fight Abu Sayyaf terrorists quickly moved out to help their allies distribute aid to displaced Filipinos. With four crews on hand, the plane flew as many as six sorties every day. In the end, the lone aircraft moved more than 40,000 pounds of cargo and more than 250 refugees by itself.
Still, the diversity of the fleet was becoming a problem. While the Q-200s were long gone by 2013, the Air Force still had three other very different aircraft performing the same mission.
By the end of the year, the 318th had sent its C-145As off to other units that spend their time training allied air forces. Less than a year later, the squadron had stopped flying PC-12s and was well on its way to turning the remaining planes into U-28s. The Air Force gave both types standard gray-on-gray camo paint jobs.
The 524th still has its C-146s in the civilian-style livery and is the only active-duty unit flying these sorts of low-key missions. The unit owned 18 of the planes as of January 2016.
For anything more significant, the Air Force turns to its fleet of larger and more capable four-engine MC-130s. The flying branch is exploring just what the Dorniers can really do, with an eye toward possibly modifying them into a bigger counterpart to the U-28s in the future.
It’s clear that the C-146As have earned a long-lasting place in the Pentagon’s plans. And you can expect to see these shadowy planes pop up more and more as Washington continues to rely heavily on commandos and focus on smaller interventions around the world.