Obscure National Guard Spy Plane Assesses Hurricane Harvey's Aftermath

The RC-26B Condor's main job is hunting drug smugglers, but the planes routinely help out after natural disasters.

National Guard Bureau

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a number of U.S. government agencies, as well as the military and the National Guard, have sent a variety of less well known specialized aircraft to assist in the ongoing recovery efforts, including the RC-26B Condor surveillance aircraft. A product of the controversial war on drugs, and one that almost didn’t come to be, these planes have become an important resource for disaster response missions, as well as tracking drug runners and even terrorists overseas.

As of Sept. 11, 2017, there was at least one RC-26B, assigned to the Texas Air National Guard’s 111th Attack Squadron based at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, flying missions over impacted areas. The 147th Attack Wing, which controls the 111th, set up an ad hoc command center at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Houston within three days of Harvey slamming into the area to coordinate rescue and reconnaissance efforts, according to the Texas Air National Guard. The 147th's main aircraft is the MQ-9 Reaper drone.

In addition, the Air National Guard had established another element within the federal emergency operations center in Austin to the West, where personnel could “help with the downlink and downfeed from our flying unmanned assets to analyze the data, and present it to the state saying, ‘Here’s the problem set. How are we going to solve this?'” U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard, explained in an interview with Military.com. “That’s how we got a lot of people out there to do all those rescues we did.”

These procedures, and the deployment of the RC-26B, are part of a well established National Guard playbook for the aftermath of a disaster, natural or otherwise. It’s important in these situations to quickly assess and monitor the situation in order to make sure often limited resources are directed to places where they are most needed and can do the most good. Unfortunately, by the very nature of these situations, it may not be possible to safely check the most seriously impacted areas on the ground.

Texas ANG

An view of the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey as seen by the sensor operator in an RC-26B. 

Based on the Fairchild Swearingen SA-227 Metroliner twin engine turboprop, the five Block 20 RC-26Bs have a sensor turret with both color electro-optical and infrared cameras. Crews can send the full motion video feed to personnel on the ground in near real time via either the U.S. military’s hand held Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) system or the RC-26-specific Dragoon data link.

National Guard Bureau via FOIA

A sample of the infrared imagery the RC-26B can capture with its sensor turret.

According to a 2013 National Guard Incident Awareness and Assessment manual, which the author previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, a typical RC-26 “package” would include a single aircraft with a crew of three – pilot, copilot, and sensor operate – along with a ground component, staffed from an Air National Guard intelligence squadron, to man the Dragoon equipment. Lieutenant General Rice told Military.com that personnel were using the Distributed Common Ground Station intelligence sharing network to pass information and video feeds where ever it might need to go, as well.

Texas ANG

A member of the 111th Attack Squadron monitors operations from their ad hoc operations center in Houston.

The Air National Guard has deployed MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft to the disaster response mission as well, but said to Military.com that, at present, manned surveillance planes offered important advantages. Most importantly, in the congested air space in the areas that Harvey hit, the RC-26B crew was better able to “sense and avoid” other aircraft or hazards, which might not be immediately apparent to drone pilots and sensor operators looking through the “soda-straw” view from their aircraft’s sensor turret. This may not be the case for long, as both the U.S. military and private industry are steadily improving the ability for pilotless planes and their crews on the ground to detect and dodge potential dangers in flight.

That being said, the Block 20 RC-26Bs are limited in how well they can observe the situation down below due to only having having the imagery provided by the similarly narrow view from the turreted cameras. A wide-area aerial surveillance setup with multiple cameras able to quickly gather a much broader scope of imagery would be far more ideal for assessing the destruction left by major disasters like Harvey.

Beyond any added situational awareness or the limitations of their sensors, the Condors main benefit is being available and ready to go for domestic emergencies. Primarily tasked with supporting counter-drug efforts, the RC-26Bs rotate around bases in the contiguous United States under the control of National Guard units in various states and governors can easily redirect them to help out after a storm like Hurricane Harvey. In an curious arrangement, the Air National Guard tucks away individual planes within established units like the 147th in Texas, which otherwise fly various types of aircraft, including F-16 fighter jets, KC-135 tankers, C-130 cargo aircraft, and MQ-9 drones.

Pre-positioned across the country, the RC-26Bs have been an important and routine part of disaster response missions for years. RC-26Bs deployed to assess and monitor damage after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, helped keep watch during the especially destructive 2007 wildfire season in California, flew over the Midwest during the flooding in 2008, and participated in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010, among other incidents.

On top of that and in addition to their counter-drug role, the RC-26B fleet, which includes six more Block 25R aircraft that have the ability to locate and listen in on enemy communications, has flown missions tracking terrorists in both Iraq and Afghanistan supporting conventional and special operations forces. Between 2007 and 2013, one of the units flying Condors overseas, the 745th Special Operations Squadron, racked up approximately 46,000 flight hours across more than 10,000 individual sorties.

Jonathan Payne via Wikimedia

What appears to be a Block 25R RC-26B, lacking the sensor turret underneath the fuselage, in 2013.

It’s an impressive resume for a fleet that does not have particularly auspicious beginnings and could easily have succumbed to budget cuts and shortfalls in personnel since their introduction in the 1990s. In 1989, in response to specific requests from units in Texas and California, the Air National Guard initiated the project to convert its existing C-26B aircraft, which had initially served in a variety of administrative and logistics roles, into a counter-drug surveillance aircraft.

At the time, Air and Army National Guard units had deployed a hodgepodge of aircraft and “sensors” to support this mission, ranging from RF-4C reconnaissance jets to UH-1H helicopter carrying troops with commercial video and 35mm still cameras. The Air National Guard bought a single Metroliner as a testbed for the conversions, which received the designation UC-26C.

USAF

A Block 20 RC-26B.

In the rush to get the aircraft into operation, the project ran afoul of U.S. military auditors, who concluded the Air National Guard had begun buying planes without properly analyzing whether or not the current mix was adequate or if other, cheaper alternatives existed to the multi-million dollar conversion program. In 1994, the Department of Defense’s Inspector General recommended National Guard officials halt any further purchases and conversions until they had sufficiently answered those questions.

The project did ultimately move forward, but with an obtuse arrangement that saw the National Guard pass official ownership of the aircraft to a contractor, Air Cerberus, and place them in the U.S. civilian aircraft register. The planes, then referred to as C-26B(Counter Drug) or C-26B(CD), flew with civilian registrations for a number of years. That the address given to the Federal Aviation Administration for Air Cerberus in some cases was the same as the National Guard Bureau’s headquarters in Virginia has led some to describe the company as a dubiously legal “front” and the exact relationship between the two remains unclear.

Wisconsin Air National Guard

An official "Air Cerberus" logo from the 115th Operations Group, 115th Fighter Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard.

In 2005, the U.S. military formally designated the planes the RC-26B and they eventually transferred back to full military ownership, though contractors remain involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the fleet. Initially, some of the Condors carried a large sensor pod underneath the fuselage, containing a radar imaging sensor, but this appears to have largely given way to the more simplified present Block 20 and 25R configurations. Some of the planes appear to have retained a discreet civilian-style paint scheme as opposed to a military-standard overall gray camouflage, too. 

Air National Guard

An earlier RC-26B configuration with the ventral sensor pod.

As of 2017, the Air National Guard had a total of 13 aircraft in the Condor fleet, including two older C-26As that it was planning to modify to a RC-26B standard. In addition, it had outlined plans to convert all the aircraft to a single, common Block 25R+ standard to make the aircraft more flexible.

“Split configurations create inefficient aircraft and manpower utilization in addition to the training and planning difficulties brought about by the acute capability differences between aircraft,” the Air National Guard argued in a document outlining its 2017 modernization priorities. The proposed new arrangement would include improved turreted sensors across all the aircraft, upgraded electronics and antenna arrays, and the addition of the U.S. military standard Link-16 data link. The modifications would include specific design decisions to allow personnel or contractors to quickly update software or install new hardware, including newer sensors, to “ensure lasting relevance,” as well.

With the one aircraft flying over Texas, and the very likely possibility that other RC-26Bs will be part of the response to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida, the planes already seem to be proving they’re still relevant for a wide variety of missions.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com