Mildenhall unit bids farewell to long-serving special ops aircraft
RAF MILDENHALL, England — The approaching retirement of their long-time operational aircraft was a bittersweet moment for Lt. Col. Shelley Rodriguez and her unit.
On March 7 their first Lockheed MC-130P Combat Shadow departed from RAF Mildenhall and flew off to be mothballed in Arizona.
“To see it go is pretty tough, I will admit, it’s pretty tough,” Rodriguez said. “For everyone, this is the end of an era, of a very unique way of flying.”
What was ending for her and the 67th Special Operations Squadron was a romantic way of flying. In place of the departing plane, with 1960s style basic avionics and limited technology making the pilot fly, in part, by instinct, Rodriguez’s unit will receive a more modern plane used by special operations in Europe: the MC-130J Commando II. While less nostalgic for pilots like her, the J model will give her unit more technology while flying and reduce the cost of fulfilling its mission.
The 67th provides fuel, supplies and general support to special operations units around Europe. It uses the P model to lift supplies, transport personnel, conduct aerial drops from low altitudes, and provide midair refueling to helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft during a mission. Most of the squadron’s training and operational missions are flown at night and on the deck, in order to avoid detection. This contributes to high pilot workloads — which is not the case with the new models and their automated flight control systems.
Rodriguez said the new J model uses less fuel, has the capability to provide more fuel to units in the field and has more cargo space for transporting troops and equipment.
“There’s just a greater capacity to accomplish the mission with this aircraft,” Rodriguez said. “It’s more responsive, it’s not nearly as weight restrictive as ours and the engine power is just phenomenal.”
The 67th has been flying the MC-130P — a heavily modified version of the standard C-130 Hercules transport plane — since the late 1980s when it was re-organized as a special operations unit. The aircraft have participated in Desert Storm, operations in Liberia and the former Yugoslavia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But age has begun to catch up with the P model, making it less appealing for the mission. Rodriguez said the plane had also become too costly to maintain, and a 2011 Selected Acquisition Report from the Department of Defense noted the P model had a significant number of “maintenance and sustainment challenges.”
All of the squadron’s 5 MC-130P aircraft are slated for retirement over the next few years. In their place, the 67th will receive 12 J models by 2022, Rodriguez said. The first will arrive in June, and by the end of the year the unit expects to have four to five.
The transition to the new plane will include an increase in personnel. Rodriguez said the unit will increase from 65 personnel to 120 to accommodate the increase in the number of planes.
Rodriguez does not anticipate an increase in the number of missions with the extra planes, but said the unit will probably have to provide more planes when it goes on a mission.