The 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall has been visibly upgrading their aircraft and capabilities over the last year (see 352nd SOG welcome the CV-22B and MC-130J). With new types becoming operational, the older aircraft are now being phased out in turn. February 2014 saw the final MC-130P Combat Shadow leaving the 67th Special Operations Squadron after almost a half century of service.

The Lockheed MC-130P Combat Shadow is one of many variants that the indomitable C-130 Hercules design has spawned – and is now one of the longest serving. Modified for its role as a special forces support aircraft, the Combat Shadow conducts low level air to air refuelling operations with both rotary and tilt rotor assets, as well as providing resupply to special forces on the ground via airdrop. Typically operating under the safety of darkness, the Combat Shadow is fully night vision compatible, and is able to land on short fields to provide Forward Air Refuelling Point (FARP) facilities in total darkness.

Although the Shadow’s competency and suitability for its mission is undeniable, it is impossible to ignore the effect that continued operation over a long lifespan will have on any aircraft. Ordered for the United States Air Force in Fiscal Years 64-69, the Shadows originally started life as HC-130Ps (the H denoting a Search and Rescue role, whilst the re-designation to MC-130P indicates the multi-mission nature of the Shadow). The 67th SOS received their first HC-130s (4 HC-130H model aircraft) in 1965, whilst based at Prestwick, Scotland and was designated the 67th Air Recovery Squadron. The first HC-130P was assigned in 1969 whilst the Squadron was at Moron AB, which was replaced by an HC-130N after the squadron moved to Woodbridge in 1970. Both HC-130P and HC-130N were eventually redesignated the MC-130P. The “Night Owls” have a rich history with the M/HC-130 family, which followed the Squadron through reassignments to Moron AB in Spain, RAF Woodbridge, RAF Alconbury and finally to the current home at RAF Mildenhall.

The 67th paid tribute to these former bases during the last operational mission of the MC-130P on 24th January 2014. Flying as “SHADOW 67”, Combat Shadow 66-0215 – the last assigned to the 67th SOS – performed a tour around the United Kingdom taking in Sculthorpe, Hunstanton, Prestwick, Alconbury, Woodbridge and the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum. Unfortunately the planned trip through the Mach Loop in Wales was curtailed because of the low cloud and fog plaguing the area.

Not all locations were former Night Owls bases. The Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum maintains a section dedicated to the history of the 67th SOS, whilst Hunstanton is historically significant due to the part the 67th Air Rescue Squadron played in assisting rescue efforts during floods in 1953 (Hunstanton still remembers the efforts of the Squadron and in particular Airman Second Class Reis Leming, who rescued 27 people from the water).

Flying the Shadow

Lieutenant Colonel John Peak, Commander of the 67th Special Operations Squadron, has been flying in the Shadow as a Navigator for 17 years and has approximately 3,600 hours on the type. Now dual qualified on both the Combat Shadow and the Commando II, Lt Col Peak spoke of the challenges and rewards of flying the Shadow:

It’s fun because it’s an eight person crew, and you have to work together to get the mission done. The [Shadow] doesn’t have all the technology of some of the newer airplanes have, such as terrain following radar. It’s a very labour intensive airframe from all the crew positions. It’s rewarding as a team to come together, and when you have a good mission, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

The major differences to the aircrew between the Shadow and the Commando II is the newer generation of equipment inside the aircraft – whilst the Shadow relies on 1960s analog technology (admittedly heavily upgraded over its life), the Commando II is late 1990s/early 2000s and as such is heavily computer based which provides a new challenge in learning to operate the MC-130J. The conversion course is around 4 months for the Navigator role (now known as Combat Systems Operators, to reflect the increased range of tasks that the CSO is responsible for onboard the MC-130J), and around 8 months for Pilots/Co-Pilots.

“You have to learn to incorporate the technology – trust the technology, but still verify what the computer is telling you. I had to learn some new habits, and break some old habit patterns.”

Testament to the maturity of the mission systems of the Shadow, one of the greatest benefits of the Commando II are the new engines – which allow better overall flight performance, providing for longer ranges, better fuel consumption, faster speeds and greater payloads.

The MC-130Js dependence on computers means the flight crew is decreased from a team of eight onboard the Shadow, to five onboard the Commando II – the Flight Engineer and Radio Operators are no longer required as standalone roles. Since the arrival of the MC-130J, the 67th SOS have been busy ensuring these aircrew who are not transitioning to the Commando II still make a valuable contribution to the US Air Force. Many have already been reassigned to sister Special Operations units, or to other Air Force squadrons flying types such as the E-3B/C and the E-4B. After the transition to the Commando II, the 67th will maintain a similar number of mission crews – a higher level of personnel overall due to the larger number of aircraft assigned.

Despite the age of the aircraft, the maintenance teams of the 352nd Special Operations Group have provided a very high mission availability rate for the Shadow – Lt Col Peak paid particular respect to their dedication and ownership of the aircraft, keeping the MC-130P airworthy in spite of the demanding and intensive flying inflicted on them by their role.

Major Andrew Lazar, who joined the 67th SOS in 2011 and has flown the MC-130P since 2007, was the Co-Pilot on the final flight and spoke of the varied tasks which provided constant challenge for the Shadow crews:

Every Mission, every day is completely different – you are never bored. It’s not flying from Point A to Point B: it’s flying from here to there with a helicopter refuelling and an airdrop, and anything and everything in between.

As would be expected, the most difficult tasks that the Shadow has to perform include nocturnal landings in bad weather into short or rough fields which frequently occurred during operations in Afghanistan. Helicopter and Tilt Rotor refuelling are also difficult tasks from a pilot perspective – although when refuelling the CV-22B Osprey, flying the Shadow is simpler due to the higher airspeed of the Osprey compared to a conventional helicopter.

The ability to work with the Osprey has been greatly beneficial to the co-located 7th Special Operations Squadron who have been taking delivery of the type in supplement to their MC-130H Combat Talon IIs. Refuelling from MC-130P and MC-130J tankers has helped the 7th SOS work towards standing up to operational readiness, whilst also providing valuable training to the 67 thSOS – a relationship that is beneficial to both parties.

 

The MC-130P Retires

Although not all the MC-130J Commando IIs have been delivered to the 67th SOS (of an eventual complement of 10 aircraft, 4 are currently in residence), the MC-130Ps assigned to the unit have been phased out as the Commandos arrived. The first to depart was MC-130P 65-0992, on March 8th 2013 – flying to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona for storage.

Date Aircraft Departure/Arrival
March 8th 2013 MC-130P 65-0992 Departed
June 7th 2013 MC-130J 10-5714 Arrived
June 11th 2013 MC-130P 66-0220 Departed
July 15th 2013 MC-130J 09-6210 Arrived (Temporarily Assigned)
September 28th 2013 MC-130J 11-5731 Arrived
October 31st 2013 MC-130J 09-6210 Departed
November 2nd 2013 MC-130J 11-5733 Arrived
December 10th 2013 MC-130P 64-14854 Departed
December 20th 2013 MC-130J 11-5737 Arrived
January 10th 2014 MC-130P 65-0991 Departed
February 3rd 2014 MC-130P 66-0215 Departed

 

The final MC-130P, 66-0215, departed RAF Mildenhall on February 3rd to begin a final stretch of operation with the 9th Special Operations Squadron, 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Flying from Mildenhall to Lajes Field in the Azores, then onto Bermuda before finally arriving in Florida, the trip was expected to take around 19 hours with the duration of each leg being 6, 8 and 5 hours respectively. Poor weather over the Atlantic, as is common at this time of year, prevented transit via a Northern route. Scheduled for a 1000L departure, the Shadow eventually left Mildenhall at 1310L due to a maintenance delay caused by a GPS issue. No farewell flyby was possible because of the criticality of fuel on a long oceanic flight although a full ceremonial flypast was conducted on January 24th during the last operational sortie. The aircrew for the final flight consisted of:

Pilot – Lieutenant Colonel Scott Hartman
Navigator/Commander – Lieutenant Colonel John Peak
Co-Pilot – Major Andrew Lazar
Navigator – Captain Michael Roy
Flight Engineer – Technical Sergeant Eric Kleser
Radio Operator – Technical Sergeant Bernard Fischer
Loadmaster – Senior Airman Eric Wellman

Once delivered to the 9th SOS, the aircrew responsible for the flight will return to the 67th SOS – either to recommence operations with the Commando II, or to await conversion training to do so.

With the retirement from the 67th SOS, the MC-130P is still in operation with the 9th SOS at Hurlburt and the 17th SOS at Kadena Air Base, Japan but the operational life of the type is now limited as al 37 MC-130E and MC-130P variants are due to be replaced by a similar number of the new Commando IIs by 2017. Mildenhall’s MC-130H Combat Talon IIs still have some time left to fly, but eventually they too will retire as the 352nd SOG completes its modernization.

AeroResource wish to thank Staff Sergeant Stephen Linch, Colonel Christopher Ireland, Lieutenant Colonel John Peak, Major Andrew Lazar and the crew (both aircrew and maintenance) of “ZEKE 41” for their hospitality, time and help in producing this article.