The twin-engined Dornier 328–100 — nicknamed the “Cougar” — looks plain on the outside, but is full of sophisticated hardware on the inside.
It’s the Air Force’s special commando test aircraft, and it’s where engineers test sensors, weapons and other gear meant for gunships, spy planes and other aircraft.
The Cougar is set up to be modular, so almost anything can be inserted into various internal bays and fixed pods, or strapped onto the fuselage using various mounting points. In May 2015, U.S. Air Force Col. Eric Forsyth described the plane’s internal details at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida. Those details include:
– Two external sponsons (750 lbs max)
– Modular fuselage antenna bays (1 top / 2 bottom)
– Ku-Band BLOS [beyond line of sight] satellite data link system
– Nose available for antenna/sensor mount
– Two reconfigurable operator workstations
With jacks for power, Ethernet, GPS and other linkages, engineers can easily install all sorts of gear. These systems would potentially be able to run long-range radars, powerful cameras, high-powered radios, laser range finders and more.
The Cougar can carry all of these equipment up to an altitude of more than 30,000 feet. The plane itself can fly more than 1,000 miles at a speed of nearly 400 miles per hour.
In 2014, the Air Force bought the plane from Nevada-based aerospace contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation. The ultra-secretive 645th Aerospace Systems Group — more commonly known by its nickname Big Safari — currently owns the Cougar, according to an entry on FlightAware.com.
This unit has a long history of operating spy planes and drones together with contractors Lockheed Martin and General Atomics. However, aviation enthusiast Joe Baugher’s well researched database of U.S. military aircraft serial numbers points to a potentially interesting history before the flying branch formally purchased the Dornier.
Previously D-CALT/N335PH. Registered May 10, 2012 to Sierra Nevada Corp as N645HM. This is currently registered to Sierra Nevada but Air-Britain [a private U.K. organization for aviation enthusiasts and historians] does not consider this aircraft as part of the fleet which has been publicly announced at 17 aircraft. The USAF serial may be a corruption of 11–3031; there haven’t been any sightings for 11–3013.
The pictures Forsyth included in his conference briefing show the plane still wearing the civilian registration code N645HM. The photographs are undated.
The Air Force has bought a number of Dornier 328s for secretive missions since the mid-1990s, according to available records. As of 2013, the Air Force Special Operations Command had a fleet of 14 militarized versions, known as C-146A Wolfhounds.