The U.S. military has thousands of aircraft that can launch attacks and support conventional operations, from the futuristic F-35 and F-22 fighters to the venerable A-10 and AC-130 close air support planes.

When it comes to supporting special operations units, the MC-130 has an essential if little-known role.

MC-130 variants have participated in every major and minor U.S. military campaign since the Vietnam War, backing up special operations units in some of the biggest commando missions.

The first versions of the aircraft flew in the Son Tay prisoner rescue in North Vietnam in 1970. Ten years later, MC-130s participated in Operation Eagle Claw, the failed mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran.

MC-130s were also part of the first major Delta Force and Ranger mission in Afghanistan in 2001, and an MC-130 was the first aircraft to land at Baghdad International Airport after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

From the Jungles of Vietnam

An MC-130E Combat Talon I in flight
An MC-130E on its final flight before retirement, April 15, 2013. The MC-130E was developed to support special operations during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force)

During the Vietnam War, the Air Force began experimenting with using a large transport aircraft to support large commando operations. Helicopters could only lift so much and fly so far.

Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observation (MACV-SOG), a secretive force that conducted missions behind enemy lines, specifically needed the capability to support its recon teams that went across the fence.

Composed of Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines, and Air Commandos, SOG conducted covert operations in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and North Vietnam, where U.S. troops weren’t supposed to be.