Highway, turned runway: U.S. Air Force crews land on Wyoming highways

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Natalie Fiorilli
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

No runway? No problem.

U.S. Air Force MC-130 crews often find themselves landing in unusual places - from dirt strips in a variety of countries to austere landing zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For crews with the 15th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, this week’s landing zone happened to be a highway.

On April 30 and May 2, an MC-130J Commando II from the 15th SOS touched down on U.S. Highways 287 and 789 in southern Wyoming, as part of Exercise Agile Chariot. Joining the MC-130J on the highway landing zones were a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthogs”, an MQ-9 Reaper and two MH-6M Little Bird helicopters.

The flight aimed to test the aircraft and crew’s ability to land in austere environments with minimal infrastructure requirements and maximum flexibility, 15th SOS Commander, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Adam Schmidt explained.

“The MC-130J is the most versatile platform in the Air Force,” said Schmidt. “This is what we do. And having the capability to land on a highway or a road can absolutely present some unique challenges to our adversaries. We can take the concepts from this exercise and apply them to any road, and in the most austere environments.”

With help from various state agencies in Wyoming, including local emergency services, sections of both highways were closed to allow the aircraft to land.

As its tires met the asphalt highway, the roughly 160,000 pound Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J touched down at speeds nearing 140 mph.

“Going into it, the crew told ourselves to treat this as just another landing, because we land in unique places all the time,” said the flight’s aircraft commander, U.S. Air Force Capt. Katheryn Richardson, an MC-130J pilot with the 15th SOS.

However, she noted the mission became more surreal as they approached the landing zone.

“We all had a moment where we were looking at the highway and thought about how unnatural it felt to be landing on a highway.”

Along with the highway landings, the week-long exercise tested Air Force Agile Combat Employment capabilities, including establishing a Forward Area Refueling Point and executing Integrated Combat Turnarounds - with crews working to recover and relaunch the aircraft in a minimum amount of time.

The FARP component of the exercise saw the MC-130J crews quickly refueling the pair of A-10 Warthogs from Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing, as well as simulating a refuel with the MQ-9 Reaper.

FARP exercises, which involve refueling with the aircraft engines running, allows units to train for scenarios where established refueling points may not be accessible or when air-to-air refueling is not possible.

Working to quickly refuel the aircraft is an adrenaline rush, said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Tyler Boyer, a member of the Forward Area Refueling Point team with the 1st Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron.

“You run out of the aircraft and feel the jetblast and you hear the engines running,” Boyer explained. “It’s a rush the entire time until we step back onto the plane when we’re done.”

Other highlights of Exercise Agile Chariot included the first-ever unmanned aerial vehicle landing on a U.S. highway with an MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the ​​919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field, Florida.

Additionally, Agile Chariot saw Airmen from the Kentucky National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron performing a jump from the MC-130J to establish and secure the highway landing zone for the inbound aircraft.

Members of the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, also partnered with the MC-130J crews to simulate a search and rescue scenario. As part of the simulated mission, the units partnered together to transport the MH-6M Little Bird helicopters on the MC-130J to the highway landing zone. From there, members of the 160th took off from the landing zone to execute the search and rescue exercise.

With the ever-changing nature of modern warfare, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dave Meyer, deputy mission commander for Exercise Agile Chariot, explained that overall, the exercise will play a role in helping to plan and execute future real-world missions.

“An adversary that may be able to deny use of a military base or an airfield, is going to have a nearly impossible time trying to defend every single linear mile of roads,” Meyer said. “It’s just too much territory for them to cover and that gives us access in places and areas that they can’t possibly defend.”