A new aircraft entered U.S. inventory shortly after Oct. 1, 2005, when Air Force Special Operations Command activated the 319th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The squadron soon received six U-28A aircraft, the military version of the Swiss Pilatus PC-12, for intra-theater support of special operations forces.
The Air Force activated a second U-28A squadron, the 34th SOS, on April on April 9, 2010.
A third squadron at Hurlburt, the 19th SOS, provides simulator training for the U-28A and other aircraft.
The U-28A fleet was purchased with Special Operations Command (SOCOM), rather than Air Force, funding. The aircraft and crews belong to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). The number of U-28As appears to be about a dozen.
“I can’t give you the specific number of U-28As, but we plan to have about 60 light/medium transports [of all types],” said AFSOC’s Capt. Kristen K. Duncan. “AFSOC owns and leases light/medium transport aircraft for a variety of missions, primarily moving small amounts of personnel and cargo around intra-theater airfields. These aircraft give us the flexibility to move smaller amounts of people and cargo to remote or austere airfields that our larger aircraft could not use.”
SOCOM and AFSOC officers saw something they liked in the Pilatus PC-12. With a distinctive, narrow-chord wing that spans fully 47 feet 3 inches, the PC-12 is a muscular, single-engine aircraft popular with commercial users for its flexibility: For an economical $500 per flight hour, the PC-12/U-28A can haul up to nine passengers and cargo from a remote airstrip to a busy hub fully 1,500 miles away, flying well above terrain and much of the weather at a respectable cruising speed of 270 knots. Its maker says the aircraft can take off in 2,450 feet and land in 3,050. AFSOC says the U-28A is certified to land on dirt and grass strips, making it handy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The cyber-world is rife with speculation about cloak and dagger missions the U-28A might perform. If U.S. special operations troops seize a high-value enemy commander, might the U-28A spirit him away from a primitive landing field behind enemy lines – with greater speed and flexibility than a helicopter? Might the U-28A extract small teams of U.S. commandos from deep inside Bad Guy Country? Officials discourage this kind of guessing, partly to shield details of operations but mostly because the U-28A appears to be exactly what its “U” prefix signifies – a utility aircraft.
One advantage of the U-28A for unconventional operations is obvious: When painted in bland colors it can pass for a civilian aircraft and escape notice at airports in the world’s trouble spots.
The Air Force version has a crew of three – pilot, copilot, and navigator – and uses a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P turboprop engine developing up to 1,200 shp. The aircraft is equipped with weather radar and a suite of advanced communications and navigation gear.