Mississippi Air Guard Retires RC-26 Aircraft

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col (ret) Rick Berryhill
  • 186 Air Refueling Wing

The C-26 was assigned to select Air National Guard Flying Wings to provide Operational Support Airlift (OSA). It hauled people, aircraft parts, and other supplies as needed by each wing, state headquarters, and other military and government customers. The original allocation totaled 22 aircraft that were distributed throughout the U.S. Each wing operated its assigned aircraft independently and coordination between units nationwide also occurred frequently. Annual flying hour budgets were approximately 300 hours and the program started with one full-time pilot position and multiple part-time positions, usually filled with dual-qualified pilots.

In the early 90’s, as the 186th Tactical Reconnaissance Group (soon to be re-designated the 186th Air Refueling Wing) was busy transitioning to the air refueling mission, the C-26 became the heartbeat of the wing. In its OSA heyday at the 186th, the C-26 was vital to everyday operations and typically flew 90 to 100 sorties per month and executed 500-600 flying hours per year for almost 3 full years. The majority of sorties supported tanker operations that were displaced to Columbus Air Force Base while aircraft ramp, hangar, and other facility construction projects were taking place at Key Field.

In the mid 1990’s, with tightening budgets and missions diversifying, many ANG units lost their C-26 aircraft and missions. Several of the aircraft transferred to Army units and OSA missions were consolidated nationwide. Only 11 ANG units were selected to keep their C-26s and undergo a transition to the counterdrug mission. Through tireless efforts by wing and state leadership, and with significant help from Mississippi Congressional offices, the 186th was one of the final two sites selected to keep their C-26.The unit’s original C-26A model aircraft was swapped to a C-26B model and eventually modified to the counterdrug configuration which included an external surveillance pod with a retractable turret containing a video camera with a thermal imager and two KS-87 aerial photography cameras.

The 186th began flying counterdrug surveillance and photography missions in late 1999 with the typical counterdrug manning of six officer crewmembers and one enlisted administrative position.

For the nationwide counterdrug program, years of success eventually led to requests to deploy the C-26 to battlegrounds in the Global War on Terror, which the program began supporting with deployed operations in 2003 and 2004. The 11 counterdrug units nationwide worked together to support the deployed operation, while simultaneously maintaining domestic counterdrug support.

Success in the deployments led the C-26 program to support the U.S. Special Operations Command in Operations Iraqi Freedom and its follow-on derivative Operation New Dawn. Over an unprecedented 13 years of uninterrupted overseas support, the C-26 would amass tens of thousands of flying hours in support of U.S. Special Operation Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 186th C-26 personnel continued annual rotations to support deployed operations, with the typical crewmember averaging 180 days deployed per year from 2004 through 2015.

With more experienced instructors and pilots than any other unit in the nation, the 186th was selected to conduct Mission Qualification Training (MQT) for the newest USAF platform, the MC-12 Liberty. In 2009, the 186th began training and deploying active-duty Air Force crewmembers in the MC-12 program. For the first two years, all aircraft, crewmembers and support personnel would train and deploy from the 186th, exceeding 1,250 personnel and 36 aircraft. The MC-12 program executed tens of thousands of flying hours in the tactical manned ISR mission, while maintaining one of the highest sortie utilization records in USAF history.

In the thick of the MC-12 era, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform disaster was set to become one of the most catastrophic environmental events in U.S. history. A small contingent of Mississippi Army National Guard personnel fulfilled a command and control role, supporting the 186th C-26 in clean-up efforts. Using a video downlink system to coordinate with the command element and utilizing direct radio communication with a fleet of ships specialized in skimming oil from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, the 186th developed techniques and procedures to identify massive areas of oil on the ocean’s surface, and then direct the surface vessels to the exact locations to conduct oil skimming operations. Millions of gallons of oil-polluted sea water were skimmed, significantly reducing, and in most cases eliminating, oil from beaches and coastal areas.

After the MC-12 program was transferred to the active-duty Air Force, the C-26 program resumed its typical mission roles in counterdrug, stateside support missions, and deployed support. Eventually, the 186th would re-establish itself in the refueling mission and the C-26 program would transform into a squadron entity with over 20 assigned personnel and 2 assigned aircraft. The squadron would retain a robust set of operational mission requirements and remained the ANG’s training base for C-26 crewmembers.

It is now in that role that the C-26 program will finally see its sunset in the Air National Guard as it ceases its service to our state and nation. The scheduled retirement will be a bittersweet ending to an aircraft and program with an unprecedented record of service. Over the 34-year run of the C-26 at the 186th, the wing’s dedication, pride, and excellence was clearly demonstrated as it utilized resources, personnel, expertise, and culture to overcome many challenges. The C-26 Program will leave an amazing legacy that will not be easy to match.