Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 30 (VX-30), the "Bloodhounds," took delivery of a unique NC-20G range support aircraft. Now pictures have emerged that offer a look inside this modified Gulfstream IV business jet, which is primarily configured to visually document missile tests using a specialized camera system called Cast Glance.
Pictures of the NC-20G's interior were included in a contracting announcement that the U.S. Air Force put out regarding contractor support for a variety of C-20 and C-37 variants in service across the U.S. military. Gulfstream III and IV variants in U.S. military service are designated as C-20s, while versions of the Gulfstream V (including the G550) have generally received C-37 designations.
The Navy previously operated a number of standard C-20Gs as light transports, but has since transitioned to the larger Boeing 737-based C-40 Clippers. The NC-20G had previously served as a transport with Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 51 (VR-51). The U.S. Marine Corps continues to fly C-20Gs in this configuration, which are readily reconfigurable to carry passengers, including VIPs, or palletized cargo, or a mix of both.
The interior shots of the NC-20G, which is also known by its tail code BH 500 (BH referring to VX-30's 'Bloodhounds' nickname), show that seats on the right side of the cabin have been removed and replaced with frames to support the Cast Glance cameras and other equipment racks. A pair of what look to be specialized camera ports have been installed, as well.
The exact configuration of the Cast Glance system used on the NC-20G, which VX-30 received back in May, is unknown. There are publicly available details about the system as installed in a modified P-3C maritime patrol plane that the squadron has used in this same role previously.
"The Cast Glance suite includes a 170mm focal length, gyro-stabilized imaging system capable of obtaining precision and/or high resolution video and still images, as well as transmitting them to a ground-based control room from long standoff distances," according to GlobalSecurity.org. "This system has been used to support the Space Shuttle and various missile launches. It provides critical optical data during launch, stage separation and impact phases of flight. Streak photography capabilities provide excellent coverage of ballistic missile reentry profiles."
The pictures of the NC-20G's interior also show three seats on the left side of the cabin. An array of controls are prominently visible alongside at least two of them.
Additional control panels, cable jacks, and a flat panel monitor have been installed in the cabin, as well.
The NC-20G retains a galley, which has a microwave and a sink, among other features. Though not plainly visible, the aircraft would have a lavatory, too. Cast Glance missions can last up to seven hours, the Navy says.
As is the case with VX-30's other range support aircraft, the BH 500 is expected to primarily fly missions in and around the expansive Point Mugu Sea Range off the coast of Southern California, which is heavily utilized by the entire U.S. military to test new and improved missiles. This range, which covers some 30,000 square miles of the Pacific and the airspace above it, is regularly used for non-missile-related test and evaluation and training activities, too.
There are a host of other ranges off the Southern California coast where BH 500 could be utilized, as well. The NC-20G could also be deployed to provide its services elsewhere around the world, if required. VX-30's modified P-3s have often flown to Florida and Hawaii to support other test activities in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, respectively.
Otherwise, "the airplane flies how you would expect a luxury passenger airplane to handle," Navy Lt. Cdr. Spencer Smith, one of VX-30's first pilots to quality to fly the NC-20G, said back in September. “It has positive stability and smooth, damped control responses for maximum cabin comfort during maneuvering."
A typical full crew for the NC-20G is expected to include a pilot, co-pilot, and Naval Flight Officer (NFO; to help manage activities in the main cabin), as well as an observer and range support team made up of an unspecified number of individuals, according to the Navy. This is smaller than the crew complement of the P-3-based aircraft VX-30 has been using to support missile tests and other test and evaluation work. Those aircraft can have up to four people in the cockpit, as well as two flight engineers, an NFO, and the observe/range support team.
It's also worth noting that the Gulfstream-based NC-20G will be able to fly higher than the Cast Glance-equipped P-3C VX-30 has used previously. This will give personnel aboard more flexibility to observe missile and other tests.
In addition, the NC-20G's underlying airframe is a much more supportable airframe than any P-3 variant. New Gulfstream IVs were still being produced until 2018 and versions are still in widespread use globally. The modified P-3C aircraft that BH 500 is now set to supplant was originally delivered to the Navy in its maritime patrol configuration in 1987. The P-3 series has been completely out of production since 1990.
The Navy is otherwise moving ahead with plans to have completely phased out the P-3 family, including its EP-3E Aries II intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance variants, by 2025.
The Navy's test and evaluation community has also acquired a heavily modified Gulfstream V configured for range support and clearance duties, including telemetry tracking, as part of the broader shift away from the P-3. You can read more about this aircraft, which is designated as an NC-37B and carries the tail code BH 100, and its capabilities here.
The NC-20G and NC-37B also reflect an overhaul of VX-30's capabilities that comes as the squadron's test support assets can expect to be especially heavily tasked in the coming years. The explosion in hypersonic weapon development programs has already been a particularly pronounced driver of efforts across the U.S. military to expand and improve key testing infrastructure.
The pictures of the inside of the NC-20G have now offered an additional look at this unique aircraft, which looks set to be an important range support asset for the Navy for years to come.
Contact the author: email@example.com