Dissecting The U.S. Hostage Rescue Operation In Nigeria: Here Are All The Assets That Took Part In The Raid

File photo of an MC-130J Commando II (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Erin Piazza). In the box, the routes flown by some of the assets involved in the raid (ADSBExchange and Skyvector).

American hostage Philip Walton was rescued in northern Nigeria last month and several U.S. aircraft supported the operation.

Early on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, members of the Navy’s elite “SEAL Team Six” or “DEVGRU” (Development Group), based on intelligence gathered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency using sophisticated cell phone surveillance, rescued U.S. citizen Philip Walton, in central-northern Nigeria.

Philip Walton, 27, reportedly a farmer who keeps camels, sheep, and poultry and grows mangoes near the Niger-Nigeria border had been abducted from a village in the neighbouring country of Niger to the north of Nigeria six days earlier, by six men armed with AK-47 assault rifles on motorcycles.

As reported in our article published shortly after the report, the raid by U.S. special operations began with a parachute insertion into the area according to reports. This insertion method is generally used only if other means of covert insertion are not immediately available. It is also used if forces assigned to the raid must travel into the target area from a significant distance on longer range aircraft. There were approximately 30 special operations personnel involved in the raid. Once the rescue force was inserted into the area by parachute, they moved on foot approximately three miles to the target area where the rescue was made. Following a “brief but intense firefight”, Walton was moved on foot to the extraction site where CV-22s flew the hostage and rescue force to safety.

OSINT analysis on the Mode-S/ADS-B tracks correlated with details provided by aircraft spotters as well as sources familiar with the matter, provide a pretty accurate overview of all the assets involved in the rescue operation.

The AFSOC aircraft involved in the operation forward deployed to Naval Air Station Rota, in southwestern Spain, on Oct. 29, and from there launched on Oct. 30, 2020. Special Operations aircraft involved in the raid were MC-130J Commando II, CV-22B and one AC-130J.

The MC-130J, whose primary roles are HAAR (Helicopter Air-to-Air Refueling) of SOF helicopters/tilt rotor aircraft, infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of SOF by airdrop or landing on remote airfields played a major role, along with the CV-22s that carried out the exfiltration of the team and hostage. Noteworthy is also the presence of one AC-130J Ghostrider gunships that probably provided air cover to the raid.

Six tankers belonging to the 100th ARW (Air Refueling Wing), deployed from RAF Mildenhall to Moron Air Base, Spain. Four flew on Oct. 30, supporting the whole Special Ops “package”.

At around 18.30 ZULU, the group of four CV-22s was the first to depart Rota as JOLT31-34 on a direct course towards Africa. Shortly after followed by the group of four MC-130Js as PINCH41-44. With the addition of the AC-130J departing just after 19.00 hours, the main attack force was on its way routing via Zagoro (Morocco), Gao (Mali) direct towards Niamey.

They were joined by the mentioned tanker group, providing refueling support all the way to Mali-Niger border. On average, it took the formation six to seven hours to complete to stretch to Niamy with the first aircraft making it back to Moron at 2 o’clock in the morning.

More interesting, a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was also called into to action from Rota to join the operation in the early hours of Oct. 31. Given the location it is highly that its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability were utilized to support the mission. Deviating from the other assets, they took a more easterly route and remained on station near the town of Tahoua for more than an hour.

Some transport aircraft deployed to Diori Hamani International Airport airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger, which acted as a local hub for the operation, hosting also some C-17 airlifters and a pretty interesting Gulfstream V, carrying civil registration N800PM. This aircraft, that was allegedly spotted on the ground at Tonopah Test Range in satellite in September 2020 photos, arrived in Niger as RCH581 (“REACH 581”), a callsign in the range typically used by the elusive C-32Bs of the 486th FLTS (Flight Test Squadron) out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Despite its official designation, the 486th FLTS is not a test unit: it is a quick-reaction transportation operation squadron utilized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Domestic Emergency Support Team, and the Foreign Emergency Support Team for special operations and intelligence missions world-wide. Its operations fall under the Air Force Special Operations Command and its aircraft usually appear in the most unusual locations all around the world using bogus serial numbers and always changing Hex codes.

It’s not clear who was operating N800PM on Oct. 29, 2020 and what role it played during the subsequent rescue operation. But the presence of such a mysterious aircraft in Niger on the day before the raid, does not seem to be a pure coincidence.

Anyway, here’s the full list of aircraft spotted, monitored or tracked online before, during or after the raid [a big thank you to all our readers, spotters, airband listeners and geeks who have sent details, logs and hints!]

Date Callsign Departure Destination Type Registration
29.10.2020 FLUX41 EKYT LERT MC-130J 12-5760
29.10.2020 FLUX42 EKYT LERT MC-130J 09-6207
30.10.2020 JOLT31 LERT ZZZZ CV-22 11-0059
29.10.2020 JOLT31 EGUN LERT CV-22 11-0059
29.10.2020 JOLT32 EGUN LERT CV-22 09-0047
30.10.2020 JOLT32 LERT ZZZZ CV-22 09-0042
30.10.2020 JOLT33 LERT ZZZZ CV-22 09-0047
29.10.2020 JOLT33 EGUN LERT CV-22 10-0052
29.10.2020 JOLT34 EGUN LERT CV-22 11-0060
30.10.2020 JOLT34 LERT ZZZZ CV-22 12-0064
29.10.2020 PINCH41 EGUN LERT MC-130J 13-5786
30.10.2020 PINCH41 LERT ZZZZ MC-130J 08-6205
30.10.2020 PINCH42 LERT ZZZZ MC-130J 13-5786
29.10.2020 PINCH42 EGUN LERT MC-130J 08-6205
30.10.2020 PINCH43 LERT ZZZZ MC-130J 09-6207
30.10.2020 PINCH44 LERT ZZZZ MC-130J 12-5760
29.10.2020 QID636 EGUN LEMO KC-135R 72605
30.10.2020 QID638 EGUN LEMO KC-135R 51493
30.10.2020 QID639 LEMO LEMO KC-135R 23540
30.10.2020 QID640 LEMO LEMO KC-135R 80113
30.10.2020 QID641 LEMO LEMO KC-135R 00324
30.10.2020 QID642 LEMO LEMO KC-135R 80100
30.10.2020 RCH1009 LERT LERT AC-130J 14-5797
29.10.2020 RCH1009 KLRF LERT AC-130J 15-5825
29.10.2020 RCH1011 KLRF LERT AC-130J 14-5797
30.10.2020 RCH406 LERT DRRN C17 99206
28.10.2020 RCH406 KNTU LERT C17 99206
30.10.2020 RCH406 DRRN LERT C17 99206
28.10.2020 RCH407 KNTU LERT C17 00222
30.10.2020 RCH407 DRRN LERT C17 00222
30.10.2020 RCH407 LERT DRRN C17 00222
29.10.2020 RCH581 KNGU DRRN GLF5 N800PM
31.10.2020 MN801 LERT LERT P-8
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.