The United States Air Force has a little-known team of elite security commandos that are highly trained for a very particular job, protecting aircraft and crews from enemy assaults while on the ground in dangerous locales. They are called the Phoenix Ravens.

Born in 1997, the Phoenix Raven program is a specialized force that provides protection for aircraft in high-threat or unknown threat areas. Whether the danger is from terrorist groups, organized crime, narco-militias or even a desperate populace that has just experienced a natural disaster, Phoenix Ravens may be the only thing standing between these threats and a very big, expensive and vulnerable winged target with an American flag on its tail.

Phoenix Ravens—sometimes nicknamed “Murder Crews” due to their black bird moniker—work in small groups, usually of under a half dozen, and integrate directly with a mission’s aircrew. Not only can they provide an inner circle of security around the aircraft, but they can also work with the pilots and loadmasters on mission planning.

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This can come in the form of providing intelligence about local threats. coming up with operational plans for landing at a particular site, and figuring out how to move sensitive cargo quickly once they have arrived. Above all else it means planning for contingencies.

Ther e are only about 200 active duty Phoenix Ravens, although this number is augmented by the National Guard and Reserve personnel. Still, the number is relatively tiny when it comes to U.S. military units. As such the force is in very high demand, especially since the Global War on Terror begun.

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Today, Phoenix Ravens work in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Africa, South America and pretty much any place where America’s footprint is light, but cargo still needs to be moved. Some missions these teams will support are deeply classified, as such we may never truly know the extent of their participation in changing the course of world events.

According to the Air Force, Phoenix Ravens’ unique training includes:

“The Phoenix Raven training course is conducted by the United States Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. The intensive three-week, 12-hour-a-day course covers such subjects as cross-cultural awareness, legal considerations, embassy operations, airfield survey techniques, explosive ordnance awareness, aircraft searches, and unarmed self-defense techniques. Students are exposed to more than 70 use-of-force scenarios where stress is simulated using role players. Training includes instruction and realistic practical exercises in antiterrorism/force protection, weapon system security, verbal judo, combatives, tactical baton employment and advanced firearms proficiency.”

Once completing the arduous course, newly minted Phoenix Ravens get their patch and a distinct member number based on the order in which they were accepted into the unit. The lower the number, the more respect. There have only been about 2,000 of Phoenix Ravens in their nearly 20-year history.

Once becoming a Phoenix Raven, other advanced training becomes accessible, including cross-service opportunities. Sniper/counter-sniper, advanced intelligence, counter-terrorism, Airborne and SERE training opportunities are available, although getting tapped for some of them is very competitive. Some Phoenix Ravens have even graduated from the U.S. Army’s Ranger course.

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After the 9/11 attacks, the Air Force become increasingly worried that one of their aircraft would get hijacked while transiting airfields abroad. The service turned to the Phoenix Ravens to become a hijacking counter-assault force capable of taking back aircraft from the enemy’s grasp. They learned the art of close quarters combat (CQB) within the tight confines of an aircraft from the U.S. Air Marshalls as well as other federal agencies, such as the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.

Phoenix Ravens are not just tasked with providing support for “gray aircraft” missions; they also will accompany some of America’s most important aircraft to places where security is uncertain. This may include flying with generals to far-flung locales aboard the Air Force fleet of private jets (C-20, C-37 etc), or even accompanying the Secretary Of State’s aircraft on a global tour (C-32A, C-40 etc). The Secretary of Defense’s aircraft (E-4B, C-17 etc) or even Air Force One may take a contingent of Phoenix Ravens along to make sure the aircraft remains untouched by unauthorized personnel while on the ground.

The services that Phoenix Ravens provide had been in such high demand over the years that an abbreviated ten day training course was developed to provide similar, albeit more rudimentary aircraft protection capabilities to units deployed abroad. Named Fly Away Security Teams (FASTs), the Air Force describes their training as such:

“During the 10-day Fly Away Security Team course at the Expeditionary Center, students receive classroom training in areas such as fly away security concept of operations, legal use of force, verbal judo and cross cultural communication. They also learn practical, out of the classroom, training in subjects such as self defense and anti-hijacking training. The first course took place at the Expeditionary Center in 2007.”

Both Phoenix Ravens and FAST units can find themselves on a dark dirt runway, hundreds or even thousands of miles from any allied reinforcements, protecting a flying fuel tank worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as its cargo and its crew.

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It is a daring and often thankless job that is more relevant today than anytime in the last two decades as threats around the globe have become increasingly more decentralized. It also allows our aircrews to fly directly into disaster zones with the confidence that they won’t be overrun by the same desperate people they are trying to help.

So next time you hear about an Air Force cargo aircraft appearing in a war-torn land, or of one of our heads of state visiting a not-so secure destination, there is a good chance the Phoenix Ravens are there too.


Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.

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Photos via USAF