OPERATIONAL SUPPORT AIRCRAFT
Electronics special mission aircraft
Corporate aircraft in military guise for sensitive government business.
US Army/National Guard Fairchild C26B on static display at EAA AirVenture at OSH (Oshkosh WI) in Jul 2008. US Air Force versions of these airplanes were recently redesignated RC26B and perform electronic counterdrug missions.
These were airplanes equipped specifically and intended primarily for electronic surveillance missions. Over the next 5 years the Army continued to order 2 or 3 RU21s annually, some equipped with an increasing number of external antennas to facilitate the aircraft's electronic mission capabilities.
The King Air 200 series came on the market in 1974, and by 1975 it was in the inventory of the US military as the C12. Over the next 2 decades Beech would deliver 384 C12s, including about 60 delivered in electronic special mission configuration as RC12s. Most RC12s went to the Army, and were delivered between the mid-1980s and the mid-90s.
These aircraft, designated variously RC12D, RC12H, RC12K and RC12M, featured an increasing proliferation of external antennas as electronic technology advanced over the years. Some of these aircraft appear to have tip tanks, but these are actually pods that house electronic gear.
The US military was not the only customer for electronic special mission King Airs. Of approximately 7000 King Airs that have been delivered since 1964, Hawker Beechcraft reports that 92 were configured for maritime surveillance/search and rescue, 73 for flight inspection/airways calibration, 34 for photographic/survey missions, and 382 for reconnaissance/ intelligence missions.
A forest of antennas adorn Hawker Beechcraft King Air B200 outfitted as a US Army RC12N. Pods on wingtips are antennas, not tiptanks.
Replacement market Today, with the C12 fleet aging, Hawker Beechcraft would like the US military to replace older C12s with the King Air 350. The company recently announced the sale of 6 King Air 350s to replace 6 UC12's currently operated by the US Marine Corps-and it is currently showing a photograph of a King Air 350 in electronic surveillance configuration that could potentially replace the RC12.
The electronic surveillance 350 features a small dark pod beneath the aircraft that would presumably house the sensors and antennas necessary for such an application. Not all aircraft performing electronic surveillance missions today started out in that role. Occasionally the military has decided to modify existing aircraft in its inventory to perform electronic surveillance missions.
Recently the Air National Guard redesignated 11 Fairchild C26s as RC26Bs to reflect added equipment and a changing mission profile. The C26 is a military version of the Fairchild Metro regional airliner, originally delivered to the US government in a utility configuration in the early 1990s.
Over the years, electronic equipment has been added to the aircraft, and its primary role has now become reconnaissance. As the capabilities of business aircraft continue to grow, and as airborne electronic systems become ever smaller and more sophisticated, it seems certain that the role of business aircraft outfitted for electronic special missions will keep expanding.
Mike Potts is an aviation consultant who has worked in corporate communications for OEMs and MRO firms over the past 30 years.