The U.S. Air Force Sends Giant Cargo Planes on Special Operations
Unique program trains crews to fly big jets in tough conditions
For decades now, the U.S. Air Force has trained crews to operate large cargo planes on dangerous special missions all over the world.
The Special Operations Low Level II program qualifies pilots and crew to fly at night, at low level and in bad weather. SOLL II also prepares airmen to land their enormous planes on short runways with no lights.
Of course, the flying branch’s commandos do have their own unique transports to perform these kinds of missions. But each of these MC-130s carries fewer than 100 troops at a time.
Sometimes Air Commandos need larger aircraft. Air Mobility Command’s C-17s each can carry around 100 people or 85 tons of cargo—greater than the MC-130’s maximum weight when full of paratroopers and fuel.
These were the considerations that led the Air Force to create the SOLL II program in 1979. The Pentagon was planning to rescue 52 American hostages being held in Iran after the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
The plan called for U.S. troops to break the captives out of the American embassy in Tehran. MC-130s could fly commandos into the country, but would not have enough room to fly everyone out.
Instead, Army Rangers would capture a nearby air base so that specially trained crews would land C-141B Starlifters. The large four-engined jet transports would load up all the Americans and fly them to safety.
In addition, regular C-130 transports would fly in fuel to fill up the other planes and helicopters. Those crews needed advanced training, too.
The C-130 and C-141 portions of the project were called SOLL I and SOLL II, respectively. But in the end, neither group participated in the mission.
The rescue attempt—Operation Eagle Claw—kicked off on the night of April 24, 1980. A number of helicopters malfunctioned and commanders on the ground decided to abort the mission early the next morning.
An accident occurred as the force refueled and packed up to leave. With eight Americans dead, the aborted mission quickly turned into a debacle on the ground … and an embarrassment for Washington.
In the aftermath of the mission, the Air Force eventually folded the SOLL I training regimen for C-130 pilots into other projects. However, SOLL II crews for bigger planes became a permanent fixture.
The 437th Airlift Wing took charge of the project. The 437th is still only unit in the flying branch that provides SOLL II crews and large transports for specialized, world-wide operations.
The 437th initially flew only regular C-141Bs. Eventually, the Air Force upgraded the aircraft with signature “lumps and bumps” on the nose.
These protrusions contained an infrared camera and sensors to detect enemy defenses. The aircraft also got advanced navigation and communication gear.
In the end, the 437th’s first major mission with its Starlifters was delivering personnel and equipment into Grenada during the American intervention in 1983.
Since then, the wing has been involved in most major American operations around the world. It has also participated in a number of more secretive efforts.
For instance, transports from the 437th spirited deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to France in 1986. The same year, the wing’s Starlifters brought former Philippine premier Ferdinand Marcos from Guam to his exile in Hawaii.
The wing also applied its special skills to support Contra rebels in Nicaragua, according to the unit’s official history.
During the 1990s, the 436th Airlift Wing also joined the game, acquiring specially-configured variants of the C-5A Galaxy—the biggest transport in the world outside of Russia. In 1993, the wing received its first C-17 Globemaster III, its current plane.
In 2000, the Air Force finally remove the old Starlifters from service. The flying branch stopped using Galaxies for SOLL II operations in 2005. Currently, some 50 C-17s are available for SOLL II missions. Their crews wear sensitive night-vision goggles.
These aircraft flew in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. SOLL II pilots sneaked the first regular American troops into Bagram air field in Afghanistan in 2002. At that point, the base had not been in regular operation for years, making any landing a dicey proposition.
SOLL II C-17s dropped 1,000 paratroopers into northern Iraq in 2003. This mission was one of the largest airborne operations in recent memory—and marked the first time the C-17 had hauled parachutists in combat. Today the 437th and its giant airlifters remain on call for dangerous, low-level missions.