The countdown calendar on the operations desk at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, finally hit zero. After two years of intense preparations, the 415th Special Operations Squadron received its first aircraft, an HC-130J Combat King II, in ceremonies on 29 September 2011. The US Air Force’s newest training squadron, known as the Nightstalkers, took delivery of its first MC-130J Combat Shadow II on 9 October. The lights are on at this graduate school for personnel recovery and special operations aircraft crews, and classes will begin soon.
“We’re diving in headfirst,” said SSgt. Jeremy Addie, a member of the initial cadre of forty maintainers supporting the new aircraft. “Much of the avionics and systems on the J-models are new to us. We’re looking forward to getting inside them and start working with these aircraft.” As additional aircraft are delivered, the number of maintenance section personnel will rapidly double.
After maintenance releases the new aircraft for operations, the initial aircrew cadre will get their turn. “We have a pretty aggressive schedule,” noted Lt. Col. Mike McClure, the operations officer for the 415th SOS. “Instructor training flights begin in November, and we’ll have all our instructor crews trained by March 2012. The first group of students arrives later that month to begin academics. Student training flights begin next June. Our job is to get students fully trained as quickly as possible.”
Unlike combat delivery C-130s, in which crew position can be filled with any qualified pilot, navigator, flight engineer, or loadmaster, Airmen on legacy HC- and MC-130s fly as a hard crew while deployed. The flight deck familiarity that comes from flying with the same people all the time will continue on the new HC- and MC-130Js. “Our training is designed to keep crews together as much as possible,” said TSgt. Michael Mueller, the lead loadmaster and course syllabus manager for the 415th SOS. “A student crew will go through simulator training and on-aircraft flights together.”
Air Combat Command’s legacy HC-130P/N aircraft operate with a crew of seven—pilot; copilot; flight engineer; navigator; Airborne Mission System Specialist, or AMSS; and two loadmasters—on rescue missions to refuel helicopters and airdrop pararescue jumpers and equipment. Air Force Special Operations Command’s legacy MC-130Ps carry a crew of eight—the two pilots, flight engineer, two navigators, one AMSS, and two loadmasters—on clandestine low-level missions to refuel special operations forces helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft and to airdrop or resupply small commando teams in denied areas.
With the advanced electronic, electro-optical, navigation, and defensive systems on the HC- and MC-130Js, the crew complement for both aircraft will be reduced to five—two pilots, two loadmasters, and one Combat Systems Operator, or CSO. “The HC- and MC-130J CSO has a lot more responsibilities,” noted Capt. Jim Tuthill, a 415th instructor CSO. “We’re carrying out the traditional navigator job, and, in addition, we operate the refueling system, take on part of the engine and aircraft systems monitoring tasks, and operate all the different radios needed for these missions.”
The curriculum at the new joint-service navigator training school at NAS Pensacola, Florida, does not address the additional responsibilities CSOs will have on the HC/MC-130J special mission aircraft. “The CSOs require more training,” noted Mueller. “They will start thirty- to-forty training days before the pilots and loadmasters show up.”
Academics and simulator time account for eighty percent of crew training. “The capability of the simulator is so close to the actual aircraft that we can get crews to ninety percent proficiency in there,” said McClure.” The sim is available all the time, it’s very reliable, and it offers us better efficiency and cost management.”
Both the HC-130J and MC-130J are equipped with unique features such as a universal aerial refueling receptacle to receive fuel from boom-equipped tankers, an AN/AAS-52 electro-optical/infrared sensor system, and satellite communications gear. As delivered, the two aircraft are essentially the same, just with different mission requirements, so the simulator can be used to train crews for both platforms.
The Nightstalkers were officially established as a squadron only a week before the first aircraft arrived. But like many things with this new squadron, life’s moving pretty fast. The full-up weapon system simulator for the 415th is now in operation at the vendor’s facility in Florida—and cadre members have trained on it. However, in the coming months, the system will be packed up, shipped to the base in Albuquerque, and installed in a newly completed simulator facility a block away from the 415th SOS offices and briefing rooms.
“We have set up a proficiency-based syllabus versus an event-driven syllabus,” noted McClure. “The flightline only makes up about twenty percent of our crew training.” Crews at Kirtland will only fly six or seven sorties before graduation. Only one of those flights will come in daylight. The rest will be at night while flying on NVGs.
HC-130J training crews will concentrate on low-level, single-ship missions and refueling rescue helicopters. For MC-130J crews, sortie emphasis will be on multiship employment and low level operations, as well as refueling helicopters and special operations tiltrotor aircraft. Both the 512th Rescue Squadron, the HH-60 Pave Hawk training squadron, as well as the 71st SOS, the CV-22 Osprey schoolhouse, are at Kirtland. “Part of our job is to be their tankers,” noted McClure.
The Air Force’s long-planned recapitalization of its personnel recovery and special operations fleets has now begun in earnest. The first operational HC-130J unit, the 79th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, received its first Combat King II on 24 September 2011. The first operational MC-130J unit, the 522nd SOS at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, received its first Combat Shadow literally a half hour before the first HC-130J was delivered to Kirtland. The 415th SOS will eventually operate a total of seven aircraft—three HC-130Js and four MC-130Js.
A series of upgrades to both the HC-130J and the MC-130J are already planned. The upgrades include a variety of items ranging from additional chaff and flare dispensers to a high-speed, low-level cargo delivery system for both aircraft. Dual special mission processors will eventually be added to the Combat Shadow IIs. But those improvements will come later. The Nightstalkers have a job to do now.
“Two years ago, we were a detachment with four people. We now have thirty-five and are a full-up flying squadron. We’ll have aircrew from legacy operational squadrons inbound here for the next six months. There will be fifty people assigned to the 415th, and we’ll fill up squadron by mid 2012,” said McClure. “Then, we’ll have the last six months of fiscal year 2012 to get nine crews trained. It’s going to be hard work, but it’s going to rewarding hard work.”