Blackbirds

If there is an intriguing C-130 mission, it would have to be COMBAT TALON, the MC-130E/H Combat Talon I/II mission of the Air Force Special Operations Command. For the sinister looking black camouflage and beetle-nose of the SOF birds lend a special air to them and their mission.

The C-130 SOF mission had its beginnings in the summer of 1964 when Tactical Air Command ordered the creation of a fourth C-130 squadron, the 779th Troop Carrier Squadron, within the 464th Troop Carrier Wing at Pope AFB, North Carolina. The squadron was organized with former C-123 crews, along with overseas returnees from the C-130 squadrons and brand new pilots, navigators, flight mechanics and loadmasters. By late winter of early 1965 the 779th was combat ready and crews were serving temporary duty tours in France with the 322nd Air Division. The France tour was cut short due to the escalating war in Southeast Asia and the 779th went to Kadena, Okinawa on rotation. Next squadron crews went to Africa to Operation LEO, an operation that was in its final stages.

On a hot North Carolina August afternoon in 1965, the entire 779th Troop Carrier Squadron assembled in the squadron briefing room for a "Secret" briefing. Colonel Rodney Newbold, the 779th TCS commander, revealed for the first time to his men the reason that the 779th had been created as a C-130 squadron the year before. Tactical Air Command, following the desires of the Army''s Special Warfare Center, had ordered the creation of a new C-130 mission, and the 779th had been brought into being for that mission. The men of the squadron were going to be trained to support long-range special operations teams working deep inside hostile territory. Pope would be the primary training base and the headquarters for the mission, while two detachments would function overseas, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. That week the first of the squadrons brand-new C-130E(I) "Skyhook" airplanes showed up on the ramp at Pope. Though essentially a C-130E just like the squadron had been flying for the preceeding eight months, the C-130E(I) featured the beetle-like nose of the Fulton Recovery System that was installed on the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service HC-130H airplanes that were just coming into service. Additional equipment for high-speed airdrops and electronics warfare were added later.

As they realized their new mission, the men of the 779th understood what an Army CV-2 CARIBOU with the same beetle-nose they had seen flying over Pope was for, and they realized that they were to assume that mission. But first there was one last TDY as a conventional airlift unit as the entire squadron went to Mactan, a tiny island in the Philippines, to open up a new C-130 base. The 779th flew out of Mactan from September to December, 1965, with most of their missions into and within South Vietnam. When the squadron returned to Pope, they began training for the new mission.

As things turned out, events in Southeast Asia led to some changes within the squadron and also with the mission itself. Some squadron personnel were sent overseas with the 776th TCS as it transferred to PACAF, while others elected to go to other squadrons as volunteers from the 777th and 778th were accepted into the new mission. By mid-1966 the first crews had been trained and a detachment of two airplanes, along with crews and support personnel, was ordered to Ching Chang Kuan AB, Taiwan to become part of the 314th Troop Carrier Wing, a unit that was equipped with C-130Es, and thus equipped for maintenance support. The mission was code-named COMBAT SPEAR.

With CCK as their permanent base, the C-130E(I)s began rotations to Nha Trang, SVN where the Army's Fifth Special Forces had their headquarters. Nha Trang was also the base for Project DUCK HOOK, a special C-123 mission that used Chinese and Vietnamese crews to resupply Vietnamese special operations teams working inside North Vietnam and Laos. The C-130E(I)s were to assist in the support of these teams by delivering supplies by airdrop and also possibly inserting and retrieving agents. But while the airplanes were Fulton-equipped and the crews qualified for the mission, the military denies that the Fulton recovery system was ever used in combat.

Though both DUCK HOOK and COMBAT SPEAR were trained for missions into North Vietnam, only a relative handful were flown. Most missions were routine airlift missions delivering supplies for Special Forces to border-area airports such as Khe Sanh in Vietnam and Nakon Phanom (Thailand) on the Thai-Laotiaon border. The first mission into North Vietnam was flown on Christmas Day, 1966, though whether or not it was flown by C-130s or C-123s is not clear. Though Special Forces-trained Vietnamese teams worked in North Vietnam, they were supplied primarily by helicopter. Only 17 combined C-123/C-130 resupply missions were flown into North Vietnam over the 2-year period between January 1, 1967 and the end of 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt to operations against North Vietnam. To keep the crews busy, the COMBAT SPEAR airplanes were occasionally given leaflet missions under Project FACT SHEET, a special mission that was ordinarily the responsibility of the 35th squadron, a conventional C-130A unit based at Naha, Okinawa.

Nha Trang had long been the scene of frequent harrasing mortar attacks by the Viet Cong, and in November, 1967 one such attack got lucky as rounds destroyed one of the COMBAT SPEAR airplanes. The following month, on December 29, 1967 the second airplane was evidently shot down while on a resupply mission. Just how the airplane was lost is open to conjecture. Some accounts have it flying into a mountain in Laos, while the Office of Air Force History account of airlift operations in Southeast Asia simply says it was "lost." But, some former BlackBird members have heard stories from Army Special Forces types who claim the airplane was hit while making a Fulton pickup of a Special Forces team. A former BlackBird pilot once told me that he was told by a Green Beret sergeant that the airplane was hit by a SAM over North Vietnam with a Special Forces major trailing behind it. The sergeant claimed he was next in line to be picked up, but had to make his way to friendly territory by other means. One of the pilots was evidently awarded a Silver Star posthumously for "completing an air drop of vital importance."

In 1968 COMBAT SPEAR transferred from the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing (all troop carrier units were redesignated in 1966) to the 14th Air Commando Wing at Nha Trang as part of a move to realign USAF special warfare missions. (At the same time, the C-123 squadrons in Vietnam lost their Air Commando designation and became tactical airlift squadrons.) COMBAT SPEAR became the 15th SOS. Through the remainder of the Vietnam War, the unit continued its mission of resupply of Special Forces units in South Vietnam and cross-border teams operating in Laos. A C-130E(I) from the Pope squadron, which had been designated as the 7th Special Operations Squadron and another from Detachment 2, 1st SOW, which was also at Pope, participated in the unproductive raid on the Son Tay Prison Camp in November, 1970. The SOS airplanes provided navigation for the assault force of SOS and ARRS helicopters, then dropped flares while the mission was in progress.

In 1972 the COMBAT SPEAR squadron left Vietnam to move to Kadena, Okinawa where it became the 1st SOS. The SOS C-130s continued to play a role in the Vietnam War, especially by flying airdrop missions using special release equipment that allowed blind drops without dependence on outside sources. But the drop missions were to assist the 374th TAW, whose airplanes lacked all-weather airdrop capabilities, which was responsible for airlift operations in Southeast Asia at the time.

At about the same time the Pope squadron got the word that they were going into the new mission in 1965, the Air Force set up Project HEAVY CHAIN, a special C-130 mission based at Norton AFB, California. Though HEAVY CHAIN was highly classified, some of the equipment and procedures used in the project were later incorporated into the C-130E(I)s. Since the Vietnam War, the SOS C-130 mission has been redesignated as COMBAT TALON, and the airplanes as MC-130s. The mission moved from Pope to Hurlburt Field, Florida with the overseas units eventually winding up at RAF Alconbury in England and at Kadena, Okinawa which is now part of Japan.

COMBAT TALON crews were part of the ill-fated Iranian rescue mission on April 24th, 1980. The MC-130 crews carried the assault force to Desert One, where they were to transfer to helicopters. Other MC-130 crews flew EC-130s equipped with bladders to refuel the assault helicopter force. The mission failed due to mechanical problems with the Navy helicopters which were being flown by Marine pilots. (Why USAF SOF or ARRS helicopters and pilots who were equipped and trained for such a mission were not used has been attributed to military politics.) The failed mission turned into disaster when one of the helicopters struck the tail of a EC-130, causing a fire and explosions that destroyed both aircraft. CNN - How many rockets can make plane land like a chopper? - March 3, 1997

COMBAT TALON MC-130s led the invasion of Grenada, but their conduct there was far less than expected of crews with the training and motivation that is expected of military SOF personnel. In comparison with airborne operations of the past, the mission was much like the early World War II missions in the Mediterranean when everything that could go wrong did. The operation got off to a bad start when members of a Navy SEAL team drowned because they were too laden with equipment for a water jump. Four of the SEALS never came up again after they landed in the water. Those that did were unable to make their way to shore in their Boston Whalers due to heavy seas. COMBAT TALON crews were leading a mission of US Army Rangers who were to land and secure the airfield in prepartion for landings by other C-130s and C-141s. The first two COMBAT TALONS were to drop a team of Rangers to clear the runway and secure the field in preparation for the remaining COMBAT TALON and three conventional C-130s to land and discharge the rest of the assault force. But the lead MC-130E pilot aborted the drop after reporting a failure of his inertial navigation equipment. There were thunderstorms in the area and the pilot claimed he could not postively identify the drop zone without the INS. The two TALONS were told to wait for the arrival of the rest of the force and to join them. All six airplanes would now drop their troops. The MC-130E pilot who was leading the second wave now led the entire 6-airplane force.

The first airplane, which would have been the first to land, dropped his 44 troops, who were members of the Ranger headquarters and command unit. The original lead, who had aborted the drop in the first place, was now number two. As his airplane came over the drop zone, it began taking hits from ground fire. The pilot aborted the drop and the rest of the formation followed. Later, he said he wanted to wait until Lockheed AC-130A "Spectre" Gunship gunships could suppress the fire. Consequently, one load of lightly armed Rangers was on the ground in the face of a strong enemy while their more heavily armed comrades were in the airplanes circling nearby. At the same time, their own equipment was still in the MC-130E that had dropped them! It was an hour after the first Rangers jumped before they were reinforced when the other two COMBAT TALONS and the rest of the formation finally dropped their troops. Had it not been for the AC-130 gunships whose fire held the Cubans at bay, the Rangers would not have survived.

The assault on Port Salines raises a lot of questions in the minds of those who are familiar with airlift operations. INS is but one means of navigation, and the failure of the lead's should not have caused an aborted drop. Surely, both MC-130Es were INS equipped since it was standard on the type. There was at least one navigator and probably two aboard each of the MC-130Es, and the navigators should have been keeping track of their position by dead reckoning if nothing else. The airplanes also were equipped with radar, and Grenada is an island. The airfield was situated on a prominent point. Even though there were thunderstorms in the vicinity, a sharp radar navigator should have been able to identify the island and its features because land-masses surrounded by water are easily identifiable on even the most rudimentary radar. A pilot or navigator with any form of radar training should be able to determine the difference between ground returns and precipitation.

Then there is the question of why the second airplane pulled away from the drop zone just because he started taking hits. The antiaircraft fire at Grenada was 23-MM, which is the equivelant of .50 caliber. Tactical airlift crews on airdrop missions in Vietnam continued to try to put their loads on target in spite of heavy antiaircraft fire, sometimes including 37-MM. Many C-130, C-123 and C-7 crews in Southeast Asia encountered heavy fire while on drop missions, yet they did not turn away from the drop zone until after they had delivered their loads. The number two MC-130E pilot should have known that the men who had jumped in front of him were lightly armed headquarters troops, and that the firepower of the men in his cargo compartment were badly needed on the ground. These were men who were supposed to be the best of the best, but their performance did not live up to that of airlifters who had found themselves in similar situations in the past.

Since Grenada, BlackBird MC-130Es have participated in numerous operations. Some of the 82nd Airborne troopers who jumped into Panama were aboard MC-130Es, though most jumped from Military Airlift Command C-141s while MAC C-130s dropped the cargo. COMBAT TALON MC-130s participated in the War in the Persian Gulf, primarily by dropping propoganda leaflefs and a few BLU-82 15,000 pound bombs that were left over from Vietnam.

That is what COMBAT TALON has done that has been acknowledged. The question is what they have done covertly. Special operations airlift has long been a United States military mission, and C-130s have been engaged in covert operations in various parts of the world since the 1950s. Covert operations are what Special Operations Forces were created for. With the creation of the Special Operations Command, many of the missions previously flown by conventional units have become SOF responsibilities. The United States has participated in at least two major covert operations since the 1980s, one supporting the Afghani rebels against the Soviets and the other supporting the Nicaraguan Contras. After the loss of a C-123 on a daylight resupply mission, the press speculated that the United States would turn to its SOF forces for the mission. Just what role COMBAT TALON played in either of these operations, if any, has yet to be revealed but the odds are that MC-130s delivered supplies to the Contras and possibly to the Afghani freedom fighters as well.

COMBAT TALON crews have participated in relief efforts in Bosnia, particularly in the development (or redevelopment) of high altitude, high velocity airdrops of cargo to allow greater accuracy in the mountainous areas of Bosnia during the initial resupply effort in 1993. (High-altitude drop techniques using bundles rigged for high velocity were developed in Southeast Asia by conventional airlifters in 1972 during the siege of An Loc.) Today the COMBAT TALON force is still a major part of USAF Special Operations forces, along with SOS helicopters and AC-130 gunships.


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