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Broadcasting Aboard ‘Commando Solo’

IEEE attendees hear about U.S. government broadcasts from a plane

At the IEEE on Wednesday, Lt. Col. Douglas Williams of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, discussed the government’s aerial radio and television broadcasting from an EC-130J transport plane, dubbed “Commando Solo.” It’s a little unusual when a speaker starts by saying his presentation is unclassified.

Williams, squadron commander, gave a fascinating overview of how AM, FM, television and shortwave broadcasts are transmitted from the three planes, which can be re-fueled in mid-air. Communications specialists aboard the planes select which frequencies to use for transmission, including that of a foreign country. The typical mission lasts for 15 hours and the broadcasts are used to influence foreign audiences with the U.S. side of a story, he said.

For example, to support relief efforts earlier this year after the Haitian earthquake, Commando Solo made a total of 28 trips and broadcast more than 260 hours of information; the government distributed hand-crank radios so the Haitian people could hear the broadcasts about topics such as where to receive medical attention.

Much of what is broadcast is pre-recorded, however Commando Solo’s personnel can also transmit live radio broadcasts, too. There are at least six radio transmitters on the plane and an equal number of television transmitters. The personnel can deploy both a vertical and horizontal antenna.

The Air Force is looking at upgrading its transmission equipment to digital, according to Williams, who added the new equipment would be in containers that can be rolled on and off the plane so that the aircraft could also be used for other things.

And no, they do not provide QSL cards from their broadcast altitudes of between 25,000 to 35,000 feet.