The MC-12 Liberty: A Specialized ISR Aircraft

The U.S. military has the most sophisticated and extensive inventory of ISR aircraft the world has ever seen, from the aging RC-12 Guardrail program to the latest and high-demand E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). Each different platform has a unique mission and is operated to fill a hole in the intelligence loop. 

The MC-12 Liberty is a specialized ISR aircraft operating in theaters worldwide and one of the U.S. Air Force’s key ISR assets. Let’s take a look at this asset, what it’s used for, and what the future holds for the MC-12W Liberty.

The MC-12W Programme

The MC-12W Liberty is a special mission aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF). It is a modified version of the Beechcraft King Air 350ER turboprop aircraft and is used for (ISR) missions. The MC-12W carries a suite of sensors, including electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) cameras, radar, and signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment. 

The MC-12W was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and has since been used in several AORs, including Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

An MC-12W under sunshades in Oklahoma

The MC-12W is equipped with a variety of sensors, including:

  • EO/IR cameras
  • Radar
  • SIGINT equipment

MC-12W Liberty aircraft are presently all assigned to the Air National Guard, with the entire fleet being assigned to the 137th Special Operations Wing of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. An interesting aside: the 137th SOW has undergone many iterations over the past two decades. They were an Airlift Wing flying the C-130H Hercules, outfitted in 1979, and they were the first ANG unit to receive the Hotel model Hercs. They would fly the H-model Hercs for 26 years until they were recommended to transition to an aerial refueling role. The location at Will Rogers Airport was closed, and the Wing’s eight aircraft were divided up between the 136th AW in Texas and the 139th AW in Missouri. 

They went on to work with the 507th ARW, an AFRC reserve wing, and shared aircraft until 2014 when they were ordered to return to Will Rogers Airport and become the only MC-12W Liberty Wing in the Air Force. 

MC-12W Liberty Aircraft Specifications

Here are some of the specifications of the MC-12W Liberty:

  • Length: 46’ 8” feet
  • Wingspan: 57’ 11”feet
  • Height: 14’ 4” feet
  • Empty weight: 12,500 pounds
  • Max takeoff weight: 16,500 pounds
  • Powerplant: Two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-60A turboprop engines
  • Maximum speed: 312 knots
  • Range: approximately 2,400 nautical miles
  • Ceiling: 35,000 feet

A cursory look at these numbers compared to its cousin, the C-12 Huron, shows that it is considerably larger than the C-12 or RC-12 aircraft. It comes in about three feet longer, and the wingspan is about three feet wider than the Huron or Guardrail. But more importantly, it is a lot heavier, with an MGTOW of 4,000 pounds heavier and an empty weight that is nearly 5,000 pounds heavier.

The MC-12 Liberty is intended to loiter for hours on end, so the significantly increased durations offered by the King Air 350ER work extremely well to this extent. The aircraft is designed to handle all irregular warfare mission needs, so the two tons of additional payload capacity over the C-12/RC-12 are critical to the overall mission profile of the Liberty. 


The standard C-12 Huron and RC-12 Guardrail are propelled by a pair of PT6A-42 turboprops, pushing out 850 shp each. But to accommodate the substantially heavier MC-12W Liberty, the PT6A-60 is used, which increases the total horsepower offering by 400 shp (a 200 shp increase per side). This may not sound like much, but it is like adding a PT6A-110 (475shp) as a third engine to the C-12. 


The MC-12W is based on the civilian Beechcraft King Air 350ER and shares the avionics suite from the civilian variant. 

Beechcraft states that the standard avionics package includes the following:

  • IS&S ThrustSense Autothrottle
  • Digital Pressurization Indication
  • Collins Aerospace Pro Line Fusion Avionics Suite
  • Three 14-inch touchscreen displays
  • Synthetic Vision
  • Graphical Flight Planning
  • Integrated Charts and Maps
  • Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS)
  • Dual Flight Management System (FMS)
  • Multi-Scan Weather Radar System (WXR)
  • Integrated Terrain Awareness and Warning System (ITAWS)
  • Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance (TCAS II)
  • Automatic Flight Guidance System (AFGS)
  • Dual Navigation and Communication Radios

This makes the MC-12W a very well-equipped aircraft for its global mission, and its 2,400 nautical miles range provides the capacity to circumnavigate the world quickly, getting to the AOR quickly regardless of where it is. 

A Specialized ISR Aircraft

The Air Force has kept an entire stable of ISR platforms from the analog ages, based on its core aircraft (C-130 and C-135 mainly). But these are large, burn tons of fuel, and are much more costly to operate than a King Air. As digitization took over the world, ISR payloads drastically reduced in size. The MC-12W Liberty can handle what took far more infrastructure just two or three decades ago.

An MC-12W aircrew steps to the aircraft.

It is equipped with a sensor pack that includes electro-optical/infrared sensors, radar, and signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment. These sensors allow the aircraft to collect data on a variety of targets, including ground vehicles, personnel, and infrastructure.

The MC-12W is also equipped with assorted communications and data links for transmitting data to ground stations and other aircraft. This allows the aircraft to share information with other units and provide real-time intelligence support to ground forces.

The MC-12W is a versatile and capable ISR aircraft that has been used in all kinds of missions around the world. It has been used to support ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and monitor maritime activity and counter-narcotics operations. If the Army is any indication of the direction of ISR in the future, it will be using commercial off-the-shelf business aircraft and modifying them for ISR work rather than taking legacy tactical aircraft. 

Mission Training

The MC-12 Liberty has been all over the place in terms of unit assignment and tasking. They were originally given to the Mississippi Air National Guard, to the 186th Air Refueling Wing, when the tanker wing had lost its tankers. 

However, that didn’t last for very long. Eventually, the 186th got tankers back (which is kind of a miracle in itself). Anyway, the Libertys eventually made their way to Oklahoma, where the 137th had been on a borrowed mission with borrowed aircraft for several years. The 137th ARW was redesignated as the 137th SOW (its third mission profile in just over a decade), and all MC-12Ws are stationed in Oklahoma now. 

An MC-12W taxis back to the chocks after a mission.

All mission training is conducted locally under the callsign profile of “SOONR,” where the aircraft routinely orbit in patterns similar to what they would perform in the AOR. Oklahoma is a great place for the MC-12 to operate from because of the relatively close proximity to many different geographic varieties. If they head west, they can operate over New Mexico or Colorado mountains within an hour or two. Heading south-southeast, they are operating over the ocean within 90 minutes. 

Relevant Variants

There are only two variants of the MC-12, which are derivatives of the King Air 350 or 350 ER. The C-12 shares a common core designation but is not the same aircraft. 

C-12 Huron

The C-12 Huron and RC-12 Guardrail are based on the Super King Air 200, a legacy aircraft. The Army has used this admirable airframe for nearly five decades, but the sun is now setting on the C-12, as all models have been transferred to the National Guard and Army Reserve while the active duty Army looks for a replacement. 

King Air 350 and 350ER

The King Air 350 and 350ER are substantially larger and more capable than the King Air 200 that the C-12 is based on. King Air 200s will undoubtedly serve for many more years to come as civil aircraft, but their time as military aircraft is coming to a close. 

All MC-12W Liberty aircraft are King Air 350ERs; the King Air 350s were all sold to other nations or transferred to other federal agencies. 

Final Thoughts

The MC-12W Liberty represents a strategic step forward for the U.S. Air Force. It provides more ISR capacity than past generations of aircraft, all while sharply reducing the logistical burden and cost. A King Air 350ER costs a fraction of a C-130 and even less of a fraction of an RC-135 or other C-135-derived airframe. Also, the airframes are much lower timed, which will provide many years of use before costly repairs will need to be addressed (consider the wing box issues that all Hercs dealt with). Commercially derived business aircraft are easier to acquire and far easier to replace, and there are no struggles with sourcing or procuring parts and services for the King Air 350ER. 

Greenwood Aerospace has been the industry leader in this space for decades and is your #1 stop for procuring parts for the King Air 350 and King Air 350ER fleet. Give us a call or start your quote today to see what we can do for you!