Increasing use of eyes and ears in the sky

Wide array of big and little ISR aircraft aid security.

By Paul Richfield
ATP/CFII/A&P. Beechjet 400, Citation 525, Gulfstream IV and Mitsubishi MU300

Newest US Air Force aircraft is the Hawker Beechcraft MC12W Liberty, a King Air 350 derivative equipped for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Here the first MC12W returns safely to base in Iraq after its maiden combat sortie on Jun 10, 2009.

Twin turboprops are not only back on the Pentagon’s wish list—they’re heading for the front lines almost as soon as their gray paint dries. Early this spring, the US Air Force took delivery of the first of 37 Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350s ordered under Project Liberty, the Defense Dept’s new, billion-dollar effort to bring actionable, street-level intelligence to US and allied troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The initial 7 of these aircraft—designated MC12W—are based on previously-owned King Air 350s sourced on the civilian used aircraft market. From the 8th unit onward, however, the program will shift to new-build 350ER (extended range) models offering about an hour of additional fuel for 6–8 hours endurance.

Project Liberty is anything but an isolated case. It is merely the latest in a progression of recent, unconnected and in some cases overlapping turboprop surveillance aircraft programs, each offering a range of capabilities to niche military and intelligence community customers.

Some of these efforts are secret while others have been touted as success stories, such as the Army Constant Hawk and Marine Angel Fire programs. Demand for this type of capability is so pressing that it has created opportunity for civilian King Air operators, several of whom are said to be competing for a number of potentially lucrative manned aircraft contracts.

These operators could include, but are not limited to, Presidential Airways of Moyock NC (the air arm of the former Blackwater, now Xe) and Dynamic Aviation of Bridgewater VA—a longtime government contractor which several years ago acquired the US Army’s entire fleet of 124 nonpressurized Beech King Air 90s.

Also in the picture is a relatively new player, Avenge of Dulles VA, which runs its King Air and RC7 (de Havilland Canada Dash 7) flight operations quietly from a nondescript house adjacent to HGR (Hagerstown MD). AirScan of Titusville FL, the world’s largest operator of paramilitary Cessna 337-type aircraft, is said to be heavily committed in the war zone and eager to expand.

Another civilian company, Telford Aviation of Bangor ME, has made its mark less as an aircraft operator and more as a modifier of civil turboprops—mainly King Airs and Cessna Caravans—for the aerial surveillance mission.

Telford has in recent years won a number of multimillion-dollar US government contracts to convert mothballed Dash 7s into RC7s, with much of the work performed at HGR in close proximity to Avenge and Sierra Nevada, a fast-growing defense contractor specializing in exotic electronic mission systems.

Earlier this year, Air Cargo Carriers, a Milwaukee WI-based freight airline as well as the world’s largest civil operator of the Shorts family of aircraft, acquired Telford in what was ostensibly a bid to ramp up its military contracting work.

Platform of choice

Hawker Beechcraft VP Special Mission Programs Terry Harrell explains why the twin turboprop in general—and the King Air in particular—is proving the platform of choice for a new type of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

“It took the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to underline the need for much more ISR capacity than [the Dept of Defense (DoD)] can generate with current assets. They’re maxed out on UAV production and operational aspects, and it’s become abundantly clear that there are certain things a manned platform can do for you.

The logistics footprint for UAVs is much higher and the command-and-control aspects are complicated. The King Air is well proven, highly reliable and low-cost when compared with a jet fighter or [Lockheed] P3-size airplane. The DoD is very familiar with the King Air, and all the various branches have operated them for decades.”

Harrell continues, “As far as sensors go, we can carry almost anything a UAV can carry, including synthetic aperture radar, electrooptical cameras and signals intelligence (sigint) gear—plus we have plenty of room in the cabin for sensor operators who can communicate directly with their customer—the soldier in the field.”

Mission specifics

The MC12W mission system is built around a Wescam MX15i electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) ball able to record full-motion video day or night. New-build ER aircraft now in the pipeline will feature the MX15D variant, which combines the “I” model’s attributes with the ability to paint targets for laser-guided munitions.

In addition, the MC12W is equipped with a sigint package said to be a development of the one crafted for the General Atomics MQ9 Reaper UAV—the former Predator B. Two pilots fly the “Liberty Ship,” while 2 sensor specialists operate the mission system.

Although its original design first flew nearly 5 decades ago, there’s nothing dated about the ISR version of the King Air 350ER. Fuel-sipping Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A engines provide power, while pilots use Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics. Sensor operator workstations (inset) provide computer power.

Sigint could be the key to the program’s effectiveness, since it enables US forces to monitor, spoof and jam the radio and cell phone signals the enemy uses to communicate and set off improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Insiders allege that some manned platforms in the inventory, including King Air variants like the Army’s RC12 Guardrail, even have the ability to penetrate enemy e-mail accounts. By the end of August, the first 6 MC12Ws had flown more than 300 surveillance missions—all reportedly originating at Balad Air Base in Iraq.

While operational details are closely held, the DoD has revealed plans to keep the first 6 aircraft in Iraq and send the next 24 to Afghanistan, with this force split equally between air bases at Bagram and Kandahar.

The first Afghanistan-bound aircraft could reach Bagram late this year or early in 2010, sources say. A further 7 MC12Ws, when they become available, are earmarked for MEI (Meridian MS), where the 186th Air Refueling Wing of the Mississippi Air Guard has been selected to conduct initial training for MC12W pilots, sensor operators and technicians.

Selection of the 186th to be the MC12W school­house seems well considered. The unit has more than 12 years’ experience operating another twin turboprop in roughly the same size and weight class—the Fairchild RC26 Metro/Merlin.

The Air Guard employs these aircraft in the ISR role, often in counterdrug operations in conjunction with local law enforcement. These aircraft are based in several states, including New York, but are deployed worldwide.


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