On an overcast and blustery early January afternoon, five members of the West Virginia National Guard’s Counter Drug program walked purposefully through biting winds across a cold tarmac in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Their mission for the day was to man the final retirement flight of their beloved RC-26 Condor aircraft, ending a distinguished career of service to the Mountain State for aircraft 94-0260.
Since initial development and fielding beginning in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the RC-26 Condor has been a primary fixed wing asset for multiple Air National Guard units around the nation, including West Virginia. The Condor is a twin turboprop surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and up until its last flight performed a multitude of important roles including domestic counter drug missions, warzone counter-insurgency flights overseas, domestic homeland security missions, and disaster relief efforts both at home and abroad.
Specific missions for the RC-26 included Iraq, Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina response, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, wildland fires in California, and Southwest Border patrols. The bulk of flight hours, however, were spent in support of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the ongoing battle against the illegal drug trade.
Serving as an ‘eye in the sky’, a three-person crew flew the aircraft and utilized advanced surveillance and communications platforms, serving as a force multiplier and airborne command post for counter drug missions. These systems included optical and infrared cameras to capture still images, day or night, in most weather conditions, and the U.S. military’s Remotely Operated Video Enhancement Receiver (ROVER) system which can provide near real-time video data to ground-based personnel for tactical and operational awareness. Airborne observations helped law enforcement agencies to identify and track drug suspects, collect evidence, and disrupt or take down specific drug trafficking groups and organizations.
Since 2002, 94-0260 flew more than 6,200 flight hours in support of all its various missions. Here at home, the aircraft helped the Counter Drug program seize more than one billion dollars in drugs and weapons in the past five years alone, helping to stem the tide of the illicit drug trade throughout the Mountain State.
“The loss of this capable and integral platform marks a sad day for counter drug efforts here in West Virginia,“ stated Col. William “Bill” Annie, program director. “The RC-26 was a critical asset for us and for law enforcement agencies across the state. While we still have rotary wing assets to maintain operational tempos and mission requirements for support efforts, we will truly miss our Condor in the sky helping to keep us safe.”
The U.S. Air Force operated 11 total RC-26 aircraft across the United States to include Alabama, Arizona, California, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington state.
According to the Air Force, the three-decade-old planes costs $30 million each year, even as other platforms including drone technologies have surpassed the Condor’s capabilities. After numerous years of wrangling with Congress, the Air Force finally received permission to retire the platform in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act and acted quickly to do so. All 11 RC-26 aircraft are now at their final resting place, the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.
Manning the final flight for 94-0260 were Lt. Col. Joseph Shamess, Maj. Brett Rampone, Maj. Nicolas Tomlinson, and Capt. Casey Williamson, all members of the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston, West Virginia.