During World War II, U.S. C-47 twin-engine transport planes delivered commandoes and civilian spies behind enemy lines in France, Yugoslavia and Burma to fight and spy on the Germans and Japanese. More than 60 years later the old “Goonie Birds” are still at it. U.S. Special Operations Command uses a handful of the seemingly eternal airplanes for hush-hush missions in Africa, South America and Central Asia, where C-47s and their DC-3 civilian equivalents are still common and prized for their ruggedness and inoffensive looks. The 6th Special Operations Squadron based at Hurlburt Field in Florida flies modified DC-3s (pictured left) alongside equally ubiquitous Russian-made helicopters and transports and Huey choppers.
Their primary mission, according to the Air Force, is to “assess, train, advise and assist foreign aviation forces in airpower employment,” but you can bet they do a lot more than that. The squadron’s website says that since 9/11, detachments have deployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other hot spots — and that the squadron was awarded an outstanding unit citation for unspecified combat ops between July 2003 and June 2005.
For 21st-century missions, some Goonie Birds, including at least one flying with the 6th, have gotten a 21st-century upgrade courtesy of Basler in Wisconsin. The so-called BT-67 adds a new flight deck and engines, with options for advanced sensors and satellite communications … and even side-firing guns. It’s a new airplane inside, but still looks perfectly harmless on the outside, and that’s half the point, according to a rare Associated Press story about the 6th:
They are, in a sense, air ambassadors. They are not the kick-down-the-door warriors normally associated with the term “special operations.” Rather they are quiet professionals — multilingual, culturally adroit, often with advanced degrees — whose task is to train and advise foreign air forces, usually in total secrecy.
But like I said, they surely do more than just train. After all, as advisory teams in Iraq have proved, training has a way of turning into combat.
Exactly what the USAF Goonies are up to is officially a mystery, but The Chicago Tribune was perhaps on to something when it reported in 2004 that the U.S. government had signed a deal to give Colombia several BT-67s (pictured at top) to help fight heroin production:
Each renovated DC-3 can ferry up to 40 passengers to clearings near the plots where poppies are grown. The planes can land on football-field long runways. The Colombian National Police now have two DC-3s, but they can only shuttle eight to 10 passengers and do not have advanced technology. The three reconditioned planes will have ground-avoidance radar, night-vision compatible cockpits and new turbo-prop engines.
You might recall that Afghanistan has something of a heroin problem, too. A Goonie Bird would work great for getting international and Afghan drug cops into remote valleys where Afghan poppies are grown. Of course, so would a Huey helicopter, but the C-47s fly farther and carry more.
Of course, this is all caffeine-fueled speculation. I could be way off. But whether they’re used just for training our foreign buddies or for spiriting commandoes around the world’s remotest battlefields, it’s telling that some of the Air Force’s most secret airplanes are also the oldest, simplest and surely cheapest.