The convenience and efficiency of transoceanic travel has improved immensely since the days of Magellan. What was once a tale fraught with storms and disease is now a half-day trip with Wi-Fi and beverage service.
Somewhere in between (COVID-19 notwithstanding) lies the story of N177RA, the most recent Aerial Reconnaissance Low (ARL) added to the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade. Ferried by Alpha Company, 3rd Military Intelligence Battalion pilots Chief Warrant Officer 4 Johnny Boston and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dave Henry, the latest addition joins the brigade ready to provide collection support to United States and Republic of Korea (ROK) partners across the peninsula.
The ARL is an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform developed from the de Havilland Canada Dash 7 (DHC-7), a turboprop regional airliner first manufactured in 1975. What it lacks in modern amenities it makes up for in reliability, continuing to conduct daily flights in support of United States Forces Korea's priority intelligence requirements.
As the last operational unit in the United States military services flying DHC-7s, 3rd MI Battalion will leverage all available opportunities to continue a heritage of ISR support to the Republic of Korea to strengthen the alliance.
Although the decision to transition this aircraft to the 501st MI Brigade was an easy one, the task itself was not. The crew began planning June 15; considering weather, performance, fuel, winds, and a myriad of other variables to bring the aircraft to its new home safely.
On July 2, they departed Incheon flying commercially to Dallas, Texas to transition to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where the ARL had been undergoing a series of modifications and corrosion inspections. From July 10 to 25, the crew conducted five different maintenance test flights and an air-out flight to ensure the aircraft was ready for its intercontinental flight. Maintenance test flights are multi-hour systems checks that analyze everything from propeller governors to aircraft pressurization during both ground and air operations. On July 25, with all necessary flight tests complete, the crew departed for the Republic of Korea.
The DHC-7, unlike modern passenger jets that can transit sans layover from New York City to Seoul, travels much slower and carries substantially less fuel. Each leg traveled over the span of the ferry flight was hand-selected considering fuel requirements, facility availability, and optimizing flight hours and crew endurance to avoid maintenance complications inherent to shutting down then restarting engines hours later. Stops crossing North America included Bozeman, Montana; Seattle, Washington; and Anchorage, Alaska.
In Anchorage, the crew spent the 10 days resetting for the pending time zone shifts and waiting for the perfect weather conditions for the next leg of their journey. The COVID-19 restriction of movement considerations made the stay a relatively dreary experience.
Since a straight flight across an ocean is impossible with a DHC-7, any route selected requires ideal wind and ceiling conditions for the duration of the flight, as small islands with runways tend to lack viable, proximate alternate airfields. One popular choice during the Cold War, and the next stop of the ferry flight, was Shemya, Alaska. Shemya, one of the few sparsely populated members of the Aleutian Islands, is a small island 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage that features a 10,000 foot runway. Due to the distance from mainland, and the sea fog that covers Shemya on a regular basis, the crew had to conduct daily weather briefs and analysis to pick the opportune time to launch.
On Aug. 6, the ideal window appeared and the crew made the trek with regular weather updates from their fellow pilots back at USAG Humphreys. On Aug. 8, weather forecasts promised calm winds, and the crew departed from Shemya on their longest leg, a 9.4-hour flight to Misawa, Japan.
After a 72-hour reset, and a short hop to Osan Air Base for customs, the aircrew returned to USAG Humphreys with their newest aircraft to start a fourteen day quarantine after arriving on Aug. 13.
The battalion's newest ARL is undergoing its final maintenance and mission configuration checks to ready it for years of support to USFK and ROK partners. It will be immediately integrated into exercises supporting 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Fighter Squadron, and the ROK Navy over the next two months, and the investment that went into ferrying the plane to Korea will be paid forward substantially.
The 501st Military Intelligence Brigade provides indications and early warning of actions by opposing forces that could threaten the tense but stable peace in the Republic of Korea. In the event of hostilities, the brigade’s mission shifts to providing combined, multi-discipline intelligence and force protection support to the United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command, the CFC Ground Component Command and their subordinate units.