The people of the 1st Special operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., make up a unique group, but the aircraft they fly are really something else. An observer can detect that the Sikorsky MH-53H Pave Low It began life as an HH-53 helicopter, and the MC-130E Combat Talons and AC-130H Spectre gunships were at one time “slick” Lockheed C-130s, but there’s nothing ordinary about these aircraft now.
The air-to-air refueling capability that all these aircraft have gives the 1st SOW the ability to overfly or go around countries or areas where landing may be prohibited or politically sensitive.
The machines of Special Ops have to be special. The 1st SOW’s motto, “Any Time, Any Place,” describes its mission, which may involve unconventional warfare, counterterrorist operations, or other taskings in various denominations of combat. The special operators may be called on to put down firepower, deliver cargo, rescue people, or do other dangerous things in some very forbidding corners of the world.
Fast, Low, and Dark
“We don’t like getting any higher than we would have to fall,” said Capt. Dennis Jones, a pilot for the 20th Special Operations Squadron. He was kidding, but not completely.
The Pave Low us were originally developed for combat rescue and are among the fastest military helicopters the United States has. Low-level work is fatigue-inducing on the airframe (the MH-53s do air-to-air refueling with the MC-130s at altitudes as low as 500 feet), and a complete service-life extension program (SLEP) has been funded. This will extend the life of the helicopters until near the year 2010.
The helicopter has 1,000 pounds of armor plate and titanium seats to protect the pilots. The crews can also shoot back—with 7.62-mm miniguns or .50-caliber machine guns. The guns are mounted on shock-absorbing pedestals that al- low the gunners to use a single hand to fire them. There are also chaff/ flare dispensers and electronic countermeasures equipment on board.
The MH-53s are crewed by two pilots, two flight engineers, and two gunners and can carry thirty-seven troops. They get where they are going by means of a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system and a terrain-following radar. There is a symbol-generator and a projected map display—”just like in the James Bond movie,” one member of the “Green Hornets” (20th SOS) said. There is also an inertial navigation system (INS) that came from A-7s, but those systems are now being replaced.
The helicopters have an automatic hover feature that gives the pilots the option, as one said, to “hit the guy we are going to retrieve in the head with the rescue hoist if we want to.” The twin engines and titanium/composite rotor blades allow for a rapid deceleration into hover. With two lines running off the cargo ramp and one line coming off the rescue hoist, a full load of troops rappelled out of a hovering Pave Low in twenty seconds during one recent exercise.
Many of the missions are conducted in blackout conditions (obviously in order to minimize the chance of being seen), and many of these systems have to be worked while wearing Night Vision Goggles (NVGs). The NVGs give a surreal but very clear view of the outside world. A newspaper headline can be read from across a darkened room with some of the new-model NVGs.
Among the features to come in the new MH-53J Pave Low Ills are terrain-following capability off the Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and instrument displays superimposed on the NVGs by means of fiber optics.
“The cockpit leads to some task saturation, but it’s no big deal,” said Captain Jones. “It goes by quick, and you go, ‘Wow, a twelve-hour mission,’ when it’s over. You sure have no trouble sleeping at night.”
Where Others Can’t Go
“We don’t drop any better than any other crew in MAC can,” said Lt. Col. Donald James, a navigator instructor with the 8th Special Operations Squadron. “We just go where the others can’t.”
As with the helicopters, the MC-130Es are designed for infiltration, resupply, and exfiltration (in both a normal and unusual manner), but at much longer ranges. They are refuelable from jet tankers and can pass along the fuel to the MH-53s by means of a drogue refueling system from wing pods.
Internally, one pallet position has been replaced with a radio operator station, which has secure UHF, VHF/FM, HF, and antijam VHF radios along with provisions for satellite communications. The radio operator sits next to the electronic warfare officer, who has a rear-aspect infrared set, jamming pods, and chaff and flare dispensers at his disposal.
Up front, the Combat Talon has two navigators sitting at a large panel at the back of the cockpit. The MC-130Es have a Night Low-Level Terrain-Following (NLLTF) capability, a “normal” terrain-following radar, a FUR, a Doppler navigation radar, an INS, and a precision ground mapping (PGM) radar. The operation of the systems is divided between the two navigators, and, yes, they know exactly where they are going.
All that is left for the aircraft commander to do is to read the instruments and fly the plane while the copilot looks out the windscreen and visually checks for obstacles in front. This, naturally, is done at altitudes down to 250 feet at night while wearing NVGs. The NVGs are also worn when landing the plane on blacked-out runways.
The aircraft’s back end has been reinforced, and its cargo ramp has been modified for the High-Speed Low-Level Aerial Delivery System (HSLLADS). This system allows for up to 2,200 pounds of cargo to be dropped while the aircraft is flying at speeds of up to 250 knots. This allows the MC-130 to drop its cargo without slowing or climbing, thus not tipping off enemy radars to the spot where the load was dropped.
Sometimes the simplest things work the best. The HSLLADS pallets are slung down two rails and out the back by a large bundle of (for lack of a better description) industrial-size bungee cords. The effects of winds are thus negated, and the low-level release at high speeds ensures a direct trajectory to the target area. There is also a drop system in which one of the loadmasters attaches a safety harness to himself and walks to the end of the ramp (and even sometimes dangles his legs over the edge), and on the navigator’s command, the loadmaster throws the bundle down. This works only for small loads, though.
The Fulton STAR System
The Combat Talons, like all C-130s, can land in a remarkably short space. That’s one way to exfiltrate troops, but the MC-130s also have another method—the Fulton STAR (surface-to-air recovery) system.
Here’s how it works. The troop (or troops) gets into a special, protective body suit. A helium-filled balloon pulls a cable aloft. The MC-130 comes along with its distinctive nose “whiskers” opened in a V-shape and catches the cable in the base of the “V.” The cable is then secured to a rotating anchor plate. Once caught, the troops are yanked off the ground, and the slipstream carries them to the rear of the aircraft, where they just “hang around” until the loadmaster can pull them inside the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the front end of the cable and the balloon (which were also blown back) are cut off by a crewman climbing through the upper escape hatch. The trail end of the cable, still secured to the nose anchor, is caught by one of the load-masters with a parahook (like a long shepherd’s crook) and reeled in and connected to a winch. Once connected, the troops are reeled in. The whole process takes five to seven minutes to complete.
The Fulton STAR system may look like something designed for Barnum and Bailey, but it works quite well. It is expensive and hazardous to use, though, so as a consequence, practice comes only a couple of times a year.
“People think we are a C-5 crew when we go somewhere,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Ramsey, a fire control officer with the 16th SOS. “It is pretty crowded inside of a gunship.” With a crew of fourteen (five officers and nine enlisted), that is not an overstatement.
The AC-130H gunships certainly have the highest profile of all the aircraft in the special operations fleet. The Spectres are armed with two 20-mm Gatling-type guns (geared down to 2,000 rounds per minute). They also carry a 40-mm Bofors cannon (100 rounds per minute) and a 105-mm howitzer that can lay impressive firepower with great precision.
Lighting Up the Night
Firing at night makes for some interesting sights inside and outside the plane. From the windows or the rear bubble that protrudes beneath the cargo ramp, an observer can see the tracer rounds as they gently arc down the 8,000-foot-offset path from the target that the plane flies as it orbits. Once the rounds impact, the explosion lights up the whole area.
Inside, when the 105-mm is fired, the whole airplane fishtails to the side. The standard of proficiency that the load crews strive for is one of the fifty-five-pound shells hitting the target, one on the way, and one in the gun breech at any given time. Normally, Army 105-mm guns fire their shells upward, but because the AC-130’s big stick is pointed down, the shell casings have to be crimped to keep the warhead from sliding down the barrel.
The 40-mm gun is hand-loaded with four-round clips. Several times in the past when the gun needed repair, maintenance crews have gone to the USS Alabama battleship memorial in Mobile to get the parts. One of the most important pieces of equipment on a gunship is a snow shovel, used to clear away the brass casings from the 20-mm gun breeches to keep them from jamming.
The 40-mm and 105-mm guns are trainable (unlike the ones on the AC- l3OAs flown by the 711th SOS, an Air Force Reserve unit) and are tied to the gunship’s sensor suite, which consists of a Low-Light-Level TV (LLLTV) and an JR sensor. There is also a laser illuminator for operating in complete darkness and the ASD-5 Black Crow sensor, which detects the sparks from truck ignitions or can be used to track a series of handheld radio beacons operated by friendly forces.
The two sensor operators and the EWO work in a booth behind the gun stations, and the targets they find are fed to the Fire Control Officer (FCO), who sits next to the navigator. The pilot, meanwhile, oversees the entire operation by means of an A-7 head-up display that is mounted at his left shoulder.
The sensors are so sensitive that distinctions in the roof gravel of an addition to the squadron building could be discerned from 600 feet away at 9:30 p.m.
The whole team works together to find targets (to within a milliradian—in this case, about four feet) and drive nails (score direct hits).
For all of the destruction the gunships can bring, they are also frequently called in for things like looking for escaped criminals (although they are limited by law as to what they can do) or to find lost boaters at night. After the Eastern Air Lines L-10l1 crash in the Florida Everglades in 1972, a gunship was called in to illuminate the area with its high-powered searchlight.
As specialized as the crew positions are, there are no fixed crews. Anybody is fully capable of flying with anybody else. They take obvious satisfaction in doing a risky job well. A former motorcycle-gang member who reformed and joined the Air Force is quoted as telling a gunship crew after an orientation flight, “You guys are crazy!”