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C-17 Special Operations Low Level II

The United States Air Force maintains an elite cadre of C-17A crews trained to Special Operations Low Level (SOLL) II standard.

These aircrews fly modified C-17 Globemaster aircraft on special operations which may include:

  • insertion, extraction and resupply of SOF, including via austere runways
  • night ops, with the aircraft blacked out and pilot using Night Vision Goggles (NVGs)
  • air drops of supplies via parachute
  • insertion of SOF troops via HALO, HAHO or static line parachute
  • air drops of SOF boats and personnel onto water

Many of the above missions are of the type also carried out by AFSOC's fleet of MC-130E and MC-130H Combat Talon aircraft. C-17A SOLL II aircraft, however, can operate at a much longer range and can carry more and bigger cargo.

SOLL II C-17A Globemasters have had a number of modifications made to the standard C-17A aircraft. The precise nature of these modifications remains classified, however they are thought to be mostly in the aircraft's communications and lighting systems.

USAF SOLL II capability was previously provided by crews flying modified C-141B Starlifter and C-5B Galaxy aircraft. The Special Operations Low Level II capability was initially developed for the failed attempt to rescue American citizens from Tehran in 1979.

SOLL II C-17s are operated out of Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, by the Special Operations Division of the 437th Airlift Wing, USAF Air Mobility Command (AMC). SOLL II operators are on constant alert, or 'J-Alert', ready at a moments notice for Joint Chief of Staff (JCS) tasking.

C-17 SOLL II Operations

Known C-17 SOLL II operations include:

  • Afghanistan, November 2001
    With the SOF war well underway, SOLL II C-17s flew insertion and supply flights for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) who had taken over an austere desert airstrip known as LZ Rhino. The C-17s delivered 2.9 million pounds of cargo and 481 ground combat troops in 8 days, firmly cementing the US presence on the ground.

  • Iraq - March 2003
    In the opening moves of Operation Iraqi Freedom, coalition SOF secured a large airfield complex, known as H1, in the Western Iraqi desert. SOLL II C-17s airdropped SOF - including Rangers - as part of an air assault to secure the base. They also dropped engineering equipment which was subsequently used to clear and prepare the runways for use. At least one SOLL II C-17 later landed and acted as a Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP). Fitted with internal fuel bladders, the C-17 FARPs were used to refuel other SOF aircraft - both fixed and rotary wing - now operating from the captured H1 airfield. SOLL II birds would later transport a number of M1A1 Abrams tanks to H1 which would go on to support Delta Force operations in the area.

C-17A Globemaster Photos & Video / More Info

C-17 Globemaster
A C-17A Globemaster takes off. The C-17 is used for intertheater airlift and airdrop of men and supplies around the world. It features reversible thrusters which allow it land on runways as short as 3000 feet. The C-17's flaps are designed to deflect engine exhaust in order to facilitate steep landings and takeoffs. The C-17 is fitted with several defensive systems including Tracor AN/ALE-47 countermeasure flare dispensers and the AN/AAR-47 missile warning system. The aircraft is also fitted with the Integrated Container Delivery System (I-CDS) which allows it to accurately airdrop freight from above the small arms fire ceiling.
U.S Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Tia Schroeder

C-17A Lz Rhine
Australian and British troops unload off the cargo ramp of a SOLL II C-17A on the air strip at Camp Rhino (LZ Rhino). The first SOLL-II C-17 landed at LZ Rhino, a 6000 foot long dirt strip 80 miles southwest of Kandahar, on November 28, 2001. C-17s were the only air platform capable of bringing in the amount of men and equipment needed in the required time scale and C-17 SOLL II crews were the only ones capable of landing the aircraft on such a dirt strip while using NVGs.
Air Force photo by TSgt. Efrain Gonzalez

C-17A low level
A C-17A practices low level flying. SOLL-II C-17A crews may use terrain masking techniques to avoid detection by radar systems.
U.S. Air Force photo by Greg L. Davis/Released

Footage of C-17A aircraft from the 437th Airlift Wing in flight (no sound)
U.S. Dod video

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