A very secretive and little-known Air Force training program has been responsible for supporting and enabling special operation units and missions for many decades. Introducing the SOLL, or Special Operations Low-Level, program.


Origins of SOLL and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Sometime in the late 1970s, the Carter administration decided that the U.S. needed a larger and better-suited airlift capability for its special operations missions.

The MC-130, which was used at the time, was a perfect insertion and extraction aircraft for a small group of commandos. Yet, the MC-130 had a limited cargo area and could not accommodate a larger number of troops. This had to be rectified.

With these thoughts in mind, the SOLL program was created. Under the program, aircrews, using modified airframes, trained in special operations skillset and capabilities.

Initially, C-130 and C-141 crews from the 437th Airlift Wing were trained in the SOLL I and SOLL II programs, respectively.

US hostages return home Iranian crisis
U.S. hostages return home after 444 days of captivity in Iran. (DoD)

When the Iranian hostage crisis occurred it seemed like the perfect opportunity to employ SOLL. However, neither SOLL I nor SOLL II were ultimately used during the hostage rescue, and the SOLL I program was discontinued — but the SOLL II program expanded.

These SOLL II operators initially flew unmodified C-141 Starlifters. As time progressed, these Starlifters were modified with advanced navigation equipment, IR cameras and sensors, and NV capabilities. The 437th SOLL II program flew first in support of the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Since then, it has flown in support of numerous airlift operations throughout the world.


C-5s and the Program’s Second Phase

In 1991, the “Night Riders” of the 436th Airlift Wing got in on the action and used modified C-5 Galaxies to enable low-level operations. These beasts were outfitted with electronic counter-measures made up of missile warning systems and flare dispensers called Pacer Snow. Crews were trained in night-vision goggles (NVG) use and made their own modifications to interior lights using duct tape, that miracle tool all maintainers know.

Contrary to the MC-130, the C-5 has room for an Abrams tank and all associated support equipment or for more than 100 special operators, their equipment, and vehicles.

Much of the C-5 SOLL II program remains shrouded in secrecy. For instance, there are no public records showing all the operations the Night Riders were involved in.

Night Rider crews were not special operators; rather, they were professional pilots and crews with special skillsets. They trained on black-out operations using navigators (not a normal C-5 crew position) for precision equipment airdrops. Loadmasters trained on rapid load/unload in blackout and combat conditions.

Although tested, personnel airdrops were not a feature of the C-5 SOLL II experience.

Special Operations Low-Level II (SOLL II) C-5 Galaxy Role
Special Operations Low-Level II (SOLL II) C-5 Galaxy Role. (Photo TSgt. Parker Gyokeres/USAF)

Because the SOLL II mission-set was so demanding, missions were flown with “hard crews.” In Air Mobility operations, crews are built depending on who is available. However, a hard crew uses the same group of people for individual missions.

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There were rarely substitutions in an aircrew’s makeup. This led to better cohesion and higher productivity because crew members came to count on each other.

The Night Riders were deactivated in April 2004 thus completing the C-5 Galaxy chapter of SOLL. Nevertheless, AFSOC still needed SOLL capabilities, so the C-17 Globemaster picked up the cargo and kept it moving down the field.


C-17s Take Over as SOLL Evolves

The 436th Airlift Wing picked up its first C-17s in 1993. These were brand new C-17 Globemasters, some of the first to reach the USAF.

Today, the C-17 SOLL II program is flown from Joint Base Charleston, SC. Currently, the 437th Airlift Wing is the only C-17 unit in the world with special operations capability.

C-17s are uniquely suited to the SOLL role. They were purpose-built to handle short and unimproved runways. Airlift and airdrop are two of the Globemaster’s biggest roles.

The “Pelicans” of the 14th Airlift Squadron conduct the C-17’s SOLL mission, receiving orders directly from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Crews remain on “J-alert” until needed.

Similar to the C-5, any SOLL II modifications done to the C-17 are classified. What is known, however, is that the mission remains largely the same. The biggest difference is the C-17s ability to facilitate troop insertion via HALO, HAHO, or static-line parachute operations. Blacked-out C-17s conduct night operations, providing infil and exfil of personnel and equipment from and to austere runways. In cases like this, the use of AF Combat Controllers is instrumental.


SOLL II Operations

Most SOLL II missions are classified as well. One known mission took place in the opening months of the Global War on Terror. U.S. Marines had established Forward Operating Base (FOB) Rhino in Afghanistan to conduct ground operations. Rhino, a hard-packed sand and dirt strip with little or no infrastructure, was the first land base in the country.

From November 28 through 5 December 2001, C-17A SOLL II crews brought in over 4,000 tons of cargo and almost 500 personnel. Flying night sorties with blackout conditions and wearing NVIS goggles, the SOLL crews proved to commanders the worth of the SOLL program.

C-17 Globemaster III
A C-17 Globemaster III takes off during Phase 1 tests at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif. (Photo by Bobbi Zapka/USAF)

Another SOLL II capability is providing Forward Area Refueling Points (FARPs).

FARP crews fly in large fuel bladders, taxi to the predetermined area, then provide refueling operations to helicopters, tanks, and other military vehicles. Fuel can also be pumped directly from the aircraft, allowing for more cargo space. All while keeping engines are running to provide power, and the ability to bug out quickly. FARP is also sometimes called forward armed refueling point because armed sentries provide cover for the vulnerable aircraft. I have flown one FARP training mission and it was intense.

The FARP capability was highlighted when 194,000 lbs of cargo were dropped at H1 field in western Iraq. After heavy equipment and personnel drops, C-17s landed and became FARPs for helicopters and tanks in the area, providing a ready base of operations.

Special Operations Low-Level skills belong to a select few. The aircraft belong to Air Mobility Command (AMC) and the overseas operations fall under the 618th Air Operations Center (TACC), which oversees mobility operations in-country. The beneficiaries of the SOLL program span the spectrum.

Whether carrying beans, bullets, or bodies, the C-17 SOLL II mission still goes strong. You just can’t see them.