Special Missions Aircraft - An Introduction (Part 2)

As operators seek means for coping with challenging market conditions, interest in business aircraft which have been modified to serve special demands is expanding. Ken Elliott helps dissect the Special Missions field as it applies to BizAv.

Ken Elliott  |  23rd September 2016
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    Ken Elliott
    Ken Elliott

    Ken Elliott is a veteran with 52 years of aviation experience, focussed on avionics in General and Business...

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    Beechcraft King Air 350ER Turboprop

    As operators seek means for coping with challenging market conditions, interest in business aircraft which have been modified to serve special demands is expanding. Ken Elliott helps dissect the Special Missions field as it applies to Business Aviation…

     During the recent Farnborough Airshow, it was surprising to discover just how deep the tentacles of Special Missions (SM) technologies penetrate into the civil aviation marketplace. A number of companies provide novel solutions for the retrofit of existing aircraft platforms, while some manufacturers specifically design versions of Business and General Aviation aircraft for SM purposes.

     As a result, the line between civil and defense aircraft is becoming increasingly blurred. Part of this blurring, and particularly for larger business jets, is an ability to provide regular transportation and specialized mission services simultaneously in the same aircraft.

     A typical wish list for an SM aircraft could be the need to climb at a fast rate, cruise at a fast speed and gain descent altitudes over comfortable distances. The aircraft should have a spacious cabin capable of seating at least 6-8 passengers while supporting a respectable SM payload. The aircraft may be a Mid-Size jet, delivering the performance and expectation of aircraft that cost significantly more. The Bombardier Learjet, for example, would fit this requirement perfectly.

     Figure 1 below shows a selection of aircraft types that may be used for various SM roles. Adding SM equipment can significantly alter the purchase or resale value of an aircraft. Also the SM’s expenditure is not necessarily proportional to the aircraft value at all.

    SM Roles in Depth: Medevac

     There are two major sub-roles of civil medical evacuation that are best described as transport and responsive. It is common for rotorcraft to be utilized in responsive roles, especially where access is a concern. Rotorcraft are more local and regional in their medevac applications.

     On the other hand, it is more common to see fixed-wing used for medical transportation where distance is a factor. For military medevac, the term ‘casevac’ is often used, referring to casualty evacuation.

     A common initial requirement for medevac aircraft is a sufficiently wide door combined with a means to transfer an immobile patient into the aircraft. The higher the aircraft wheelbase, the more the potential challenge - however, all sorts of innovative equipment is available to lift the patient to door height.

     A common practice for medevac equipage is to ‘rack package’ as much as possible so that the equipment can be mounted to seat tracks or overhead structure. This configuration enables a quick change out to non-medevac roles in as little as 15 minutes. For example, an aircraft used for charter can be switched for medevac, as and when required, in the service of a mercy mission.

     A requirement for the medevac role is to have the right electrical power source and power capacity. Because all of the action takes place in the cabin, converters, inverters and power outlets need to be installed.

    When it comes to weight impact, provisions for oxygen can really affect an aircraft’s weight and balance. Other medevac provisions may include:

    • Vacuum pumps
    • Air compressors
    • Overhead control panels
    • Additional lighting
    • Dedicated seating for medical personnel
    • Provisions for incubators.

     A number of facilities worldwide hold STCs for various levels of medevac outfitting. LifePort and Spectrum Aeromed are two of the world’s leading equipment providers. Traditional aircraft conversion companies like Lufthansa-Technik also build medevac patient modules. Medevac aircraft, operating as Search and Rescue, will also be fitted with flares, launch tubes, life-rafts and other rescue-related equipment.


     Aircraft supporting weather analysis are highly specialized and modified. Because a lot of weather monitoring is based on sensing, expect the aircraft to be outfitted with a number of probes and hard points for provisioning of probes. While normal business aircraft are suitable for adoption to this role, once modified, they may be difficult to revert to a more conventional use.

     Altitude, speed, range and performance are all important for weather aircraft. Popular models utilized, are the King Air and Learjet.

     VVIP Transport

     While VIP is important, VVIP is super-important and probably in need of on-board security. As VVIP aircraft are often required for the transportation of high-level government officials, they will need an aircraft security system to protect against unwanted access. Furthermore, the aircraft will require very secure communications, both official and unofficial, such as personal internet. These aircraft can even be found equipped with a missile protection or avoidance system.

    Regular business jets, and especially wide body air transport aircraft, are popular for this role. Anyone owning such an aircraft has a reasonable chance of reselling later into other markets.


     Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) implies listening, watching and monitoring. Governments are finding ISR an increasingly important and desirable role for their defense needs. The term C4ISR expands the ISR role to include the 4 Cs: Command, Control, Communications and Computers. The range of sensors used on ISR aircraft is extensive and includes complex radars, Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) as well as sophisticated, cabin situated, mission stations.

     These aircraft, if not purpose built, are likely to be heavily modified, both on and within the fuselage. Typically, ISR aircraft that are business jets are modified at the time of ‘green completion’. OEMs prefer to deal with SM requirements outside the normal production run and will sometimes parse out the completion itself to a separate entity within the organization, or a trusted relationship partner.

     Because ISR, and especially C4ISR roles, require significant and complex equipment, the favored business jets will be larger and capable of an extended range. Examples of these aircraft range from a Challenger 650 to a BBJ.


     Intelligence gathering and communications often go hand-in-hand. Terms such as SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) and COMINT (Communications Intelligence) are often used. The key to effective communications is flexibility and security. Communication aircraft platforms need to function in remote locations where little or no reliable infrastructure exits.

     They need to be networked or even cloud-based for a wider capability, reducing the need for excessive hardware. Interestingly, the ability to function seamlessly with an extensive range of mobile devices is becoming the norm.

     The defense world of connectivity needs to integrate with the commercial world of mobile phones and, for example, other devices using LTE, 4G technology. This includes monitoring and surveillance, including the tracking of personal devices, where appropriate. This ‘almost’ commercial application of defense capability can provide a significant boost to intelligence gathering.

     From both a monitoring and tactical operations perspective, communications need to be spectrum-agile, meaning an ability to operate across a wide range of frequency bands such as satellite, high and very-high frequencies, all on the same device. With respect to security, there is commonality of communications formatting within certain strategic regions and friendly nation groups, such as NATO.

     Maritime Patrol

     Often identified as Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), this role requires an ability to detect and track ships above and below the surface. A larger MPA could include the additional role of search and rescue capability, carrying on-board flares and rafts, for example.

     With a requirement to operate over littoral waters and open oceans, the aircraft may need to be a platform similar to the C4ISR. Regional areas containing extended coastlines, including multiple island nations such as Indonesia, have a greater need for MPA. In regions where piracy, maritime drug trafficking and illegal shipborne trade are prevalent, maritime patrol operations will be conducted.

     Border Protection

     Just as with MPA operations, land-based illegal activity by both people and nations is a security issue for a number of countries. Border protection aircraft can run the whole gamut of platforms in use—the patrol area being typically narrow and long.

     Protection can include enforcement and engagement, meaning the aircraft (including rotorcraft) may be weaponized. In conflict zones, border protection can include high-altitude surveillance (including people-watching) and using rotorcraft (actual tracking and providing intervention at the scene).

     Many countries have at least one aircraft type engaged in this role. Because of the wide variation in economic viability, the use of pre-owned aircraft is frequent.

     Mapping, Geological & Observation

     High-wing aircraft with bubble observation windows are ideal for these roles. The equipment carried as payload can be quite extensive, while operating with extreme sensitivity to detect variations in the geo-sphere or to pinpoint micro-mapping detail.

    Flight Inspection

    A wide variety of aircraft platforms have been utilized for flight inspection. Note, however, that government agencies mostly check and calibrate a nation’s ground-based air navigation infrastructure. A good example of a flight inspection task is the recurring accuracy check of ILS systems. Flight Inspection aircraft are also used for research, surveying, evaluation and test by numerous government agencies.



    Selecting the Right Aircraft for SM

     There are several performance and capability characteristics to consider when selecting the right aircraft for SM. Equipage and configuration changes affect weight and balance, structural integrity, fuel capacity (extra tanks) and more. These may in turn alter:

    • Speed
    • Range & Endurance
    • Climb Rates
    • Passenger & Baggage Capacity
    • Landing & Take-Off Distance
    • Altitude Limitations
    • Critical Field Length.

    Adding observation windows, fairings, radomes, antennas, pods and probes can all drive a change to an aircraft’s performance and capability characteristics.

     Governments looking at business aircraft solutions for their requirements will often assume the aircraft is already equipped with military avionics. These include Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders, including with Mode 5S and TACAN (a version of DME with VOR). Sometimes it is even assumed the aircraft has secure communications, including Satcom. Note that commercial communications operate at different frequencies and are not secure.

     Beyond defense related equipment, an aircraft will need to be equipped to operate in the specific airspace of the intended region of operations, and that situation usually implies additional or upgraded commercial avionics will be required.

     Other performance considerations include:

    • Operational availability expectation rate that an aircraft will be available for SM operations, as a percentage of total hours per fixed period.
    • Average flight hours required per aircraft, per annum.
    • Average mission cycle, in the number of cycles per aircraft, per annum.

    The SM Flight Department

    For a flight department considering SM, or operating for government requirements, there are a number of considerations. Some of these follow…

     Understand the planned SM in detail: Know exactly what the mission expectation will be, allowing a flight department to select the right aircraft. The main issue within SM is inadequately specified aircraft. Some companies have solely focused on SM and having only certain platforms available, thereby aligning the aircraft to the mission and not necessarily providing the exact aircraft needed. Budget and operating costs will also drive the aircraft decision.

     Aircraft Acquisition: When selecting the right aircraft, it is crucial to consider its performance based on payload. If multiple SM roles are to be performed, then assume a worst case performance scenario. Transaction options will dictate the ability to select an appropriate platform, and it may be possible to have different transaction models for the aircraft and its equipment, especially if the equipment is to be removable for role switching.

     International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR): Covered in the previous article, ITAR is a very important consideration for a flight department, if any activity will be international. Remember that ITAR is not just the aircraft and equipment. ITAR also applies to personnel, documents and data transfer.

     Airworthiness & Operational Certification Differences: There may be certification authority Special Conditions that apply to operations, while airworthiness criteria may include various Flight Manual Supplements (FMS) and Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICAs). Because of the payloads and fuselage modifications, placarded weight and operating limitations may apply.

     Crew Training & Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): Flight training, beyond initial and recurrent, may include specialized aircraft performance and navigation training. If the cabin includes mission personnel, they will need additional familiarization training. SMEs can, of course, be anyone from a practicing nurse to a ‘command and control’ ranked officer in a C4ISR aircraft.

     Ground Support & Logistics: Often overlooked for SM is the infrastructure and logistics to support operations. Following are some considerations…

    • Bases from where the aircraft is to operate, including information such as apron, taxi, runway, airport altitude and so on.
       - Always check the aircraft weight, with full payload, against an airport’s surface ability to sustain the weight.
       - Always check all aircraft dimensions, with its full complement of attached SM equipment, against the hangar and ramp areas for movement.
    • Ground Support Equipment (GSE) requirements, including…
       - Ladders, power supply, hydraulics and more.
       - Software.
       - Test equipment for onboard systems.
       - Flight planning tools.
       - Towing and aircraft access.
    • Level of maintenance capability at the home and satellite bases. In the defense world, the maintenance capability is identified by level, starting with ‘0’ as line level…
       - Spares capability, especially in remote areas.
       - Training for all personnel.
       - All publications and documentation, including for the SM equipment.
       - The right hangar, location and above all, security.


    As the world constantly evolves, so do SM requirements. Big-play cold war monitoring and protection is on the decline. On the rise is the need to be hacker resistant, super responsive and mission agile, to meet the challenge of nation-agnostic terrorism.

     Recently a major territory announced a SM requirement for nano airborne vehicles with sensing abilities. It is hard to imagine a SM future of insect-like air vehicles being used to monitor and protect, but just as upcoming wrist hugging computer ‘wraps’ will interact and display a world of data, nano cloud based ‘aircraft’ will replace the giants of today.

     While our universe continues to shrink, the separation between civil and defense becomes murky. High performance civil aircraft can and do meet the challenges of the new SM roles, allowing customers to be selective and very specific in what they require.

     Some of the technologies being tested today will enable new possibilities for aircraft not widely used for SM at this time. These technologies will also provide for operations in the most extreme of environments and remote of locations. SM has a secure and exciting future as the demand increases for creative, economical and less burdensome solutions that are becoming the norm of government procurement agencies.

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