Number 99 Squadron took the next step in developing the aircraft’s Semi Prepared Runway Operations (SPRO) capability during training based in Louisiana, USA.
Since the RAF took delivery of its first C-17 on 17 May 2001, 99 Sqn has expanded to a fleet of eight aircraft, all based here at RAF Brize Norton. The C-17 is a long-range, heavy-lift strategic transport aircraft which has the ability to deliver enormous, outsized loads rapidly into austere and tactical locations around the world, normally not accessible to an aircraft of its size. Today, 99 Squadron is one of only nine C-17 operators worldwide and the UK is the only nation in Europe to operate an independent fleet of C-17s.
Since it entered service with the RAF, the C-17 has been vital in maintaining the airbridge between the UK and Operations overseas. Providing support to Operation Herrick in Afghanistan was the initial core of 99 Squadron’s activity but has since been instrumental in providing support to Operation Telic during Gulf War II and Operation Shader and the battle against Daesh, as well as supplying numerous anti-terror Operations in Africa. Despite these huge commitments, the C-17 has also delivered humanitarian aid around the world during countless natural disasters, such as providing support to the British Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017 or the aeromedical evacuation of critically ill British nationals during the Ebola crisis and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite already being able to land at a maximum weight of 265 tonnes on runways as short 3,500 feet, the UK C-17 has always operated to well established airfields. These may have been to short runways, but like those used by other large aircraft, or even the airliners you may be used to flying on holiday with. But as of last year, 99 Squadron took the next step in developing the aircraft’s Semi Prepared Runway Operations (SPRO) capability during training based in Louisiana, USA. During this training, the entire crew experienced first-hand the complexities of operating in this type of environment and learnt how best to prepare both aircraft and personnel to deliver safely, when called upon.
SPRO is a latent capability of the C-17, which involves operating from runways constructed from non-permanent materials, such as gravel, dirt or even packed ice and snow. Normally, aircraft of the C-17’s size would require much longer, wider and smoother surfaces to operate from, but the C-17 was designed with this kind of capability in mind. The C-17 was built to carry outsized loads which couldn’t be carried by a C-130, to take the loads a strategic distance but to airfields that cannot be accessed by a Voyager
Developing a UK C-17 SPRO capability allows the RAF to exploit the existing capability of the C-17, opening up a new area of operation for Defence now and for the future. The strategic effect that this capability provides gives the UK flexibility to provide a rapid military response where it is needed in conflict or during humanitarian aid operations anywhere in the world.