Rare USAF spy plane visits Volkel AB, Netherlands

Rare USAF CN-235 visits Volkel AB, the Netherlands.

On March 24, a very unique USAF surveillance aircraft visited Volkel Air Force Base, the Netherlands. Its arrival immediately attracted the attention of many spotters as it is very rare to see in Europe. Among them was Joris van Boven who shared great images of the rare plane with us.

Although the type is well known, it is a CN-235 manufactured by the Spanish company CASA (owned by Airbus), there is a lot of confidentiality on the configuration operated by the USAF. As can be seen from the images, it has been extensively modified for surveillance missions.

The plane, flying with callsign "REACH55", wears an anonymous flat gray paint job with the only visible markings being a USAF serial on its tail and is covered with several protrusions, humps and bumps. These include missile approach warning detectors and large fairings on its empennage for buckets of forward-firing decoy flares, as well as both microwave—the dome antenna behind the wing and flat antenna modification in front of the wing—and ultra high-frequency satellite communications—the platter-like antenna behind the dome antenna. A communications intelligence suite also appears to be installed on the aircraft, with the antenna farm on the bottom of its fuselage being a clear indication of such a capability.

The most interesting feature is the aircraft's apparent visual intelligence gathering installation. It is placed in a fixed position, on the left side of the aircraft, below the plane’s forward emergency door. The rectangle structure has a sliding door that covers the system's sensors when not in use. It is similar to the reconnaissance and surveillance pods mounted on fighters. These systems have the ability to simultaneously collect infrared (IR) and visual (VIS and near IR) digital images in a very wide field of observation which are then sent to a ground station for analysis. The data obtained are essential to find and study the enemy's moves before an attack, but are also widely used in the civilian sphere.

This special CN-235, with serial number 96-6043, is one of six that have been commonly associated with the USAF's top secret 427th Special Operations Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina.

The 427th SOS is a clandestine unit about which the USAF has never revealed much information. According to some reports, it may provide Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) and tactically qualified crews to support training requirements for the US Army Special Operations Forces (SOF) community and CIA operations.

It is believed that the 427th SOS provides US Army SOF personnel the opportunity to train on various types of aircraft for infiltration and exfiltration that they may encounter in the lesser developed countries in which they provide training.

The mission of the aircraft targeted by Dutch spotters is unknown, sources report that it came from the Middle East and arrived in Volkel after a night's stop at the Aviano Air Base, Northern Italy.

Written by Matteo Sanzani
Images: Joris van Boven
Sources: Joris van Boven, The Drive

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