On Monday 24th June 2013, the 352nd Special Operations Group took delivery of the first batch of CV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, marking the start of a large expansion and modernisation program at RAF Mildenhall. Ben Montgomery visited the 7th and 67th Special Operations Squadrons at Mildenhall to learn more about their new aircraft.

352nd Special Operations Group

The 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG), comprised of 5 squadrons – of which two are flying units has been a fixed point in US Air Power in Europe for many years, and under recent modernisation plans will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Colonel Christopher Ireland, Commander of the 352nd Special Operations Group said that he sees this expansion as the start of the latest chapter in a 70 year historical relationship and partnership between the United States of America and the United Kingdom – and it’s certainly true. The 352nd SOG are hosting visitor days for local businesses and civic leaders to show them their new aircraft and explain their mission. The first, for the Suffolk area has already taken place – with additional visits planned for Norfolk and further as the Osprey and MC-130J begin expanding their radius and range of operations.

Current plans have the 352ndSOG transitioning from the fleet of 9 (as of 2012) MC-130H and MC-130P model Hercules aircraft to a 22 strong fleet of CV-22B Osprey and MC-130J Commando II aircraft.

As part of the expansion, the 352nd SOG anticipate around 380 additional personnel to be deployed to Mildenhall, with an associated increase in family members of approximately 520. Whilst the new aircraft each have a smaller flight crew, the increase in aircraft numbers translates to an increase in maintenance personnel – meaning a larger human footprint.

Bell-Boeing CV-22B Osprey

Marking a bold departure from the conventional vertical lift helicopter, the CV-22B is the result of years of research between Bell and Boeing (now Bell-Boeing). The first two examples of the CV-22 were delivered to Edwards Air Force Base in California during September 2000 for evaluation by the 412th Flight Test Wing. Aircrew training commenced on the first production aircraft at Kirtland Air Force Base in 2006, and continues apace today. The first operational Osprey was delivered to the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida in 2007, with a total of 50 aircraft expected in service across USAF Special Operations Command by 2016.

The CV-22B is utilised for long range infiltration and resupply of special operations forces. The Osprey combines the benefits of vertical takeoff and landing with the efficiencies of conventional fixed wing flight, with in-flight refuelling (IFR) capability (from both MC-130 and KC-135) extending the already impressive range of the aircraft. The Osprey is equipped with comprehensive anti-threat countermeasures, advanced terrain following radar and a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) sensor which allow the CV-22B to effectively complete its mission over any theatre, any terrain and any weather.
The Osprey could be seen as a link between fixed wing and rotary wing airpower, but training new crew members to fly the aircraft still follows the rotary wing training schedule. Aircrew training for the CV-22B will typically train with the T-6A Texan II (which replaced the T-37 Tweet in 2009) before moving to basic helicopter flying training on the Bell TH-1H Iroquois. After completion, the students will be stationed at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico for conversion training onto the CV-22B. Many CV-22B pilots have converted from other rotary wing types such as the HH-60G, or the MH-53 Pave Low (which was the last rotary wing asset assigned to the 352ndSOG), whilst others have come from fixed wing backgrounds. This mix of experience, in combination with new pilots who have trained straight onto the CV-22B provides a highly efficient skill set that the 7thSOS can utilise.

Ospreys in Great Britain

The two Ospreys currently assigned to the 7th Special Operations Squadron are not the first of their type to visit England, or indeed to visit Mildenhall. In April 2011, a detachment of four CV-22Bs from the 20th Special Operations Squadron was briefly stationed at Mildenhall and conducted sorties from there. Speculation at the time indicated that this was a feasibility study before a decision was made to base the aircraft at Mildenhall permanently – although this was incorrect, and the aircraft were merely on deployment on their way to an operational theatre.

The first two CV-22Bs to arrive for the 7th SOS were delayed on their journey over from the United States due to concerns about the potential for icing en route (weather as always playing a big role in transatlantic crossings). The two aircraft (11-0057 and 11-0058) eventually arrived at RAF Mildenhall on 24th June, after a flight consisting of 4 legs (Cannon AFB -> Hurlburt Field->St. Johns-> Keflavik-> Mildenhall) and 21 flight hours.

These two aircraft are due to be joined by another two examples in September 2013, with the remaining six arriving in two batches of three in February and August next year. This will bring the 7thSOS’ CV-22B fleet up to their full complement of 10 airframes.

Whilst in the UK the Ospreys will conduct a full range of training missions to prepare for any operational requirement. The good news for the aviation photographers amongst you is that this will invariably involve the utilisation of the UK Low Flying Area training system, including LFA7 and the “Mach Loop”. Indeed, in their first week or sorties the 7thSOS did try to get to the Welsh LFA but had to cancel. High level discussions between the USAF and the Ministry of Defence have been ongoing to enable the Osprey to operate safety in UK Airspace. At low level, because of its ability to transit between helicopter and aircraft configuration, the CV-22B can use both the 100ft helicopter Low Fly zone and the 250ft fixed wing zone – meaning that a new set of rules had to be drawn up to accommodate the aircraft (the MC-130J required no rule amendment, as its operation will be extremely similar at low level to that of the MC-130H Combat Talon II).

This low level training will also include the drop zones at Sculthorpe, STANTA range and eventually the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA), which is currently used for brownout landing training and confined landings. The brownout effect (dirt and dust thrown up by the downwash of a helicopter) is significantly stronger in the CV-22B than in a conventional helicopter, but the flight crew are able to safely land the aircraft on instruments alone if required.

The initial training programme with the CV-22B will involve more daytime flying than normal, as the 7th SOS get their personnel up to speed on the Osprey with only a few airframes. Flying intensity will remain largely unchanged however, with the mission profiles gradually moving towards the twilight/night spectrum in which the Osprey is likely to operate (much the same as the current missions from the MC-130P and MC-130H, the majority in the evening with daytime missions as and when required).

The 7th Special Operations Squadron will continue building up the fleet of CV-22B Ospreys to full strength by next summer, at which point they will begin to phase out the MC-130H Combat Talon II to become a single airframe unit. the Combat Talons will return to service with other units throughout USAF Special Operations Command.

The previous rotary asset assigned to the 352ndSOG was the Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV, a type now retired by the USAF. The 21st Special Operations Squadron flew the aircraft at Mildenhall up until its retirement in 2007, at which point rotary capability was lost at RAF Mildenhall (note that the HH-60G Pavehawks assigned to the 56thRQS at Lakenheath are not part of the 352ndSOG, and conduct a different role). It will take some time to regenerate the lost capability as well as learning and utilising the new abilities the CV-22B can offer, and so the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) date for the 7thSOS Ospreys is still fluid.

Lockheed Martin MC-130J Commando II

The MC-130J Commando II (renamed from MC-130J Combat Shadow II in 2012) is the latest Special Mission variant of the venerable Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The MC-130 is no stranger to English skies, with the 7thSOS currently operating the MC-130H Combat Talon II, and the 67thSOS in the process of phasing out the old MC-130P Combat Shadow – which the MC-130J directly replaces. All 37 MC-130E and MC-130Ps in service with the USAF will be replaced by the MC-130J, the first of which was delivered to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, in September 2011.

The MC-130J, like its predecessor, is designed and employed on low level, low visibility sorties to provide air to air refuelling facilities for special operation rotary wing and tilt rotor assets (in this case, the CV-22B Osprey). Key changes between the MC-130J and MC-130P (other than the obvious change of engines from the Allison T-56 turboprop to the Rolls Royce AE2100 with its six bladed Dowty propeller) include a completely new digital flight deck, Heads Up Displays (HUD) for both pilot and co-pilot and a more efficient cargo management system. The rollers used for dispensing cargo from the cargo compartment have been redesigned on the C-130J to enable deployment by 1 crewmember in under 5 minutes (as opposed to 3 crew members on the MC-130P). Other enhancements for the crew include new digital locks to hold cargo in place, and a built in winch for handling large or non self-propelling cargo. Interestingly, whilst the MC-130J has a smaller crew than the MC-130P, each crew member has a large role and thus a higher workload – despite the increased efficiency of the new design.

The 67th Special Operations Squadron received their first MC-130J Commando II on June 7th (10-5714), with a second airframe (09-6210) following on July 15th. An eventual complement of 12 will replace the MC-130P fleet – a process which has already started with the retirement of the first MC-130P on 7th March. Unlike the MC-130H fleet, which are 1980s era C-130H2 type airframes, the MC-130Ps are from the Vietnam era, and reaching the end of their useful service life. The first MC-130P to retire, 65-0992, was flown to Arizona and handed over to the 309th Aerospace and Maintenance Group at Davis Monthan for storage. The unit is not planned to receive all of their MC-130Js until 2022, but the MC-130P will be long retired by this point.

Whilst the MC-130P is being retired, their crews are not – many of whom will retrain to fly the MC-130J. Initial pilot training will take place at Little Rock AFB Arkansas to convert the crews to the C-130J airframe, before MC-130J specific training is completed at Kirtland AFB New Mexico. Navigators on the MC-130P will go straight to Kirtland to retrain as Combat Systems Operators, with Loadmasters completing a similar process.

Complete transfer to the new aircraft is still some time off, giving the MC-130H and MC-130P some time left on British shores before they are retired and redistributed to other units. The 352ndSOG are certainly here to stay though – with an increased fleet size of modernised and more capable aircraft, it’s likely we’ll be seeing more, not less, of our American neighbours.

AeroResource wish to thank Colonel Ireland and the 352ndSOG, their Public Affairs Office team Captain Jason Smith and Staff Sergeant Stephen Linch, as well as all the squadron personnel who took the time to answer our questions, for hosting the event and providing such excellent access and clarity.