March 16, 2010:
The U.S. Air Force has had a squadron of MC-12 "manned UAV replacement" in Afghanistan since December. Nearly a year ago, the first MC-12 squadron was deployed, to Iraq, where the twin engine aircraft was found to be durable and reliable. In six months, those dozen aircraft flew over a thousand sorties. That's about four sorties per week per aircraft. Fewer aircraft have been in Afghanistan, and for only a few months. But they have flown about 140 sorties.
The pilots MC-12 require a nine week training course, which includes simulator time, and twelve flights in the actual aircraft. The two equipment operators can do all their training on a simulator. The MC-12 itself 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 up to fifty MC-12s for duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. About three dozen will be in service by the end of the year. This will be a big help, because UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s helps 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 up to 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.