The U.S. Air Force has been testing its new "manned UAV replacement" in Iraq, and has found that the twin engine aircraft is durable and reliable. Five months ago, a squadron of the new MC-12s were sent to Iraq, and since then, those dozen aircraft have flown over a thousand sorties. That's about four sorties per week per aircraft.
The MC-12 is a modified version of the earlier RC-12 electronic reconnaissance aircraft. The MC-12 will provide the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). The air force is converting some existing King Air 350s, as well as buying new ones, to obtain 37 MC-12s for this duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. The UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s will help fill the gap. The MC-12 is a militarized version of the Beech King Air. The army began using the Beech aircraft as the RC-12 in the 1970s, and has been seeking a replacement for the last few years. But it was realized that the RC-12 was suitable for use as a Predator substitute.
The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft that, as a UAV replacement, carries a crew of four. Some of the sensors are operated from the ground. This MC-12 can stay in the air for about eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (about twice the time per sortie), but good enough to help fill the demand. The MC-12 has advantages over UAVs. It can carry over a ton of sensors, several times what a Predator can haul. The MC-12 can fly higher (35,000 feet) and is faster (over 500 kilometers an hour, versus 215 for the Predator.) The MC-12s cost about $20 million each, more than twice what a Predator goes for. The MC-12s crew consists of two pilots and two equipment operators.