WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command operates a wide range of aircraft with a wide range of capabilities. But what might surprise many is that not a single one of these planes are fighter jets.
Here is a glimpse at the aircraft of Air Force special ops as shown in a recent article by Popular Mechanics.
'Spooky': The AC-130U gunship
"All the time there's jets, the sound of jets flying around, and the Taliban, they don't care about it," Norwegian journalist Peter Refsdal told Anderson Cooper in a 2010 interview for CNN. "But there's one plane that scares them. ... It was the sound of this transport plane that scared them. And this is a plane equipped with a lot of heavy machine guns, even a cannon."
Refsdal is talking about the Air Force's AC-130U, a heavily armed variant of the C-130, developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and appropriately nicknamed "Spooky." In addition to a 40mm cannon and a 25mm Gatling gun, the Spooky also features a 105mm M102 howitzer, the largest gun ever operated on a U.S. Air Force plane.
The Spooky can provide close-air support for ground operations, in addition to supporting convoys as an escort plane.
'Handy Hercules': The Lockheed Martin C-130
The prime function of the C-130 Hercules is tactical portion of the airlift mission, according to the Air Force. This versatile aircraft is capable of many things, including landing on rough, unprepared runways and as the primary transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile territory.
The Hercules is based on a 60-year-old design, but has some of the most state-of-the-art technology at the Air Force’s disposal.
"Bad weather at night is our bread and butter," says Air Force Maj. Jason Williams, an MC-130 pilot. "It's more fun flying at night. You have the whole sky to yourself."
In addition to the Air Force, variants of the C-130 are used by all branches of the armed services. Uses of the plane include Antarctic ice resupply, aeromedical missions, weather reconnaissance, aerial spray missions and natural disaster relief. Several states operate a firefighting variant within their National Guard as well.
Vertical takeoff and landing: The CV-22 Osprey
Originally used by the U.S. Marine Corps, the CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft has been in use with Air Force Special Operations Command since 2006, according to the Air Force.
But unlike the amphibious assault ship-based Marine version, the Air Force’s Osprey has 588 additional gallons of fuel in wing tanks and is capable of flying long-range missions with its terrain-following radar. Built by Boeing and Bell Helicopter, the Osprey also has an infrared countermeasure system that protects the craft from heat-seeking missiles.
With its vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, as well as its ability to hover, the Osprey is able to conduct infiltration, exfiltration and resupply missions for special operations forces. It can also carry up to 32 troops or 10,000 pounds of cargo.
The Marine Corps has also developed a version of its Osprey, the MV-22, as part of its Marine Helicopter Squadron One executive transport fleet that transports the president. But the Osprey will not carry the call sign "Marine One" anytime soon. As Gizmodo reports, safety concerns with the aircraft prevent the president from hopping aboard. In the meantime, the MV-22s in the executive transport fleet can carry Secret Service, reporters and other White House staff members.
The other aircraft of Air Force Special Ops
Air Force Special Operations pilots fly a range of other aircraft for a range of special missions. The C-146A Wolfhound, modified from the Dornier 328, looks like a civilian plane. Similar to how special operators are not required to shave or wear military uniforms for some missions, the C-146A can be used when special operators don’t want their presence known.
The U-28A and the MC-12W Liberty are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for special ops, as well as the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper, however, can be armed with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.
Finally, the C-145A is used by the Air Force to train foreign aviation forces in order to support air power employment, sustainment and force integration. The C-145A is also used as a light mobility plane for special operators.