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C-5 unit has unlikely special ops mission

Released: 8 Dec 1999


by Staff Sgt. Pachari Lutke
Air Force Print News

WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- In the special operations world, the element of surprise is paramount and darkness is an advantage. This is especially true for the "Night Riders" of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dov er Air Force Base, Del., who perform their mission in complete darkness.

An even bigger surprise is the aircraft the 436th uses for their night missions. One hardly thinks of the lumbering C-5, the largest aircraft in the Air Force inventory, as sneaking into enemy territory. You can hardly miss a plane almost as long as a football field, and as high as a six-story building, dropping in from overhead.

But the 436th says that it can and has been done. As the only C-5 Special Operations Unit in the world, their specialty is the Special Operations Low Level II missions. The roman numerals denote use of night vision goggles.

"Who would ever expect a C-5 to be doing this type of mission?" said Lt. Col. Jim Mills, chief of wing special capabilities at Dover. "I can't go into details, but we have been involved in operations in the past." In most cases, before an operation is even given a name."

The generic answer to how long the C-5 special ops program has been going on is since the mid-1980s. However, it's not well-known around the Air Force that the C-5 plays a part in special operations -- aircraft such as the C-130 and C-141 are more apt to come to mind in that context. But it's the heavy lift capability that makes the C-5 valuable in the special ops world.

"The difference with the C-5 is you get the range. With a C-5, fully loaded, you can still fly; approximately a three-thousand mile mission," Mills said.

"Only the best and the brightest get into the 436th," he said. "And rightly so. When flying blacked out missions at 500 feet, there's no room for error."

The loadmaster is especially important on these flights. "Everything we do depends on their loading," said Maj. David Appel, deputy chief of special capabilities for the 436th AW. "The reason we're blacked out is to get their load in and out of an airfield without being seen. They can do a download and an upload in a remarkably short period of time."

Everything is done through the artificial eyes of the night vision goggles. The SOLL II crews are specially trained in the use of NVGs and infrared lighting, because when these missions get off the ground the lights are down to a minimum or completely off.

With plenty of training flights and actual missions under its belt, the C-5 has proven it can fly at low altitude, in the dark and without any lights.

Tech. Sgt. Paul Fazzini was on the ground as an observer during a SOLL II training mission. "It was unbelievable," he said. "You're standing there in the dark, you can't even see the plane coming. Then all of a sudden, whoosh -- there it is!"

Mills, a former C-130 navigator, said he can't believe how quiet an aiplane as large as the C-5 is. "If all the lights are blacked out and the cockpit lighting is set properly, you would not acquire this aircraft to maybe a half mile out without night vision goggles on. So it's pretty much element of surprise right there."

For a pilot, landing the aircraft under NVGs is the most intense thing they do according to Appel. "It takes you awhile to really understand what you're seeing," he said. "Depth perception isn't anywhere near what your normal vision is. You have to count on your navigators giving you the altitudes and the time until touchdown. With the SOLL II landings under NVGs, you have to have a lot of trust in the other crew positions."

It's because of the crew that these missions are successful. Every crew position knows exactly what's going to happen moment to moment on the flight before it even takes off.

They are dedicated professionals -- from the maintainers and the support side of the house to the communications specialists and the pilots actually flying the planes. However, because of the type of missions they fly, they get little recognition according to Mills.

"All those hours of preparation go into it, and the mission's a big success. But they can't come back and talk about the mission and get the recognition or awards," he said. "They are the unsung heros. We give them the kudos -- saying thanks for the hard work -- because we know what you do is in the black world."

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* Dover AFB, Del.