Special mission Gulfstreams


The Gulfstream. For years it has been the plaything of the rich and famous. If you think about a private jet, the chances are that a Gulfstream will pop into your head.

They are often shown on film and TV when somebody is using a private jet, and there is a strong possibility that even your mother knows what one is.

Apart from transporting people between different places, Gulfstreams carry out a number of missions. Some of these missions use normally-configured aircraft, and some use aircraft that have been especially outfitted and retrofitted with special equipment. From storm chasing to maritime patrol, you can be sure that a Gulfstream is currently doing that.


The Japanese Self Defense Force currently flies five Gulfstream IVSPs that are configured for multi-purpose roles. The main difference between these and the standard Gulfstream IVs is that the U4s have a large cargo door on the right side of the aircraft.

As well as VIP transports, the aircraft can be reconfigured in just an hour to perform different missions, including medical evacuations and marine patrol.

All five aircraft fly from Iruma Air Force base, which is a short distance outside Tokyo. This makes them hard, or easy, to see, depending on your view. Iruma holds a large air show every year, where all five aircraft are normally seen.

These are not the only special mission Gulfstreams flying in Japan, though. The Coast Guard has a pair of Gulfstream Vs flying out of Tokyo Haneda that complement a pair of Falcon 900s based in Naha, Okinawa.

Germany’s HALO

The DLR (German Aerospace Centre) operates a single G550 in a similar role to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Gulfstream IV (which appears later in the list), which is known as HALO (High Altitude and Long Range Research Aircraft).

Delivered in January 2009, this G550 is not only for the use of the DLR. It is also available to universities and other scientific research centres involved in atmospheric research.

Unlike the other Gulfstreams on the list, there is little to differentiate this G550 from the standard version, aside from a long spike that, unusually, doesn’t come out from the nose but from just under the cockpit. However, the windows have been changed to optical grade glass, allowing photographs and video to be taken from inside the aircraft.

Internally, of course, it is very different. The DLR previously operated a Falcon 20-E in a similar mission, but the G550 is so much larger that it can accommodate more than twice the amount of scientific equipment that could be carried on the Falcon – up to 15 racks of equipment.

The DLR website says that, internally, the G550 includes in-situ detectors for evidence of trace gases and particles, remote sensing instruments such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and infrared spectrometers, and instruments for investigating geophysical parameters.

Although the G550 is based at Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, it can been seen operating from different airports from time to time.

Singapore AEW G550s

Isreal Aircraft Industries, which builds the G280 airframes for Gulfstream, has a programme in place that can take an existing G550 frame and make it almost unrecognisable. Externally, the airframe has a bulbous nose and an extra protrusion at the rear. The main fuselage looks as though it has swallowed a large rectangular box.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) took delivery of four of these aircraft, all based at Tengah, Singapore, in a deal worth a reported $1 billion. They can often seen at Singapore’s main Changi Airport.

Inside, the aircraft are fitted with a host of ELINT equipment for electronic reconnaissance. Based on the IAI/ELTA EL/M-2085 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) system, they fly Conformal Airborne Early Warning and Control (CAEW&C) missions, patrolling the Singapore coast.

To protect themselves, the aircraft have a self protection suite with 360° radar warning receiver (RWR), missile approach warning system (MAWS), and directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM).

Indian Air Force Gulfstream IIIs

There are a handful of Gulfstreams that became ultra-elusive on delivery, and practically impossible to see. The Indian Air Force Gulfstream IIIs sit very close to the top of the list.

India took delivery of two Gulfstream IIIs for use in special roles, with both aircraft believed to be carrying high altitude photography equipment for border control duties. The country also took delivery of a third that was partly used in a VIP role.

The first two aircraft are based on the Gulfstream III SRA platform. They have high altitude photo reconnaissance equipment fitted, hidden by extra bumps on the fuselage and sliding “doors”.

These aircraft are very rarely seen in public. Both were delivered through Prestwick, Scotland, in January 1987, and promptly disappeared from view. This is why they are the only aircraft on this list that aren’t accompanied by images.

One of the aircraft was damaged during a hangar collapse at Charbatia Air Force base in eastern India in 2006. Charbatia is home to India’s Aviation Research Centre, with the Gulfstream IIIs operated by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Although the aircraft’s serial has been reported, it is believed that the Air Force deliberately swaps these around, which adds to the mystery of these aircraft.

These aircraft did appear in public as recently as 2009 and 2010, when they were ferried to Florida for works. Although separately and at completely different times, they both passed through Lajes and Malta to Ft Myers, where they were upgraded.

Unfortunately, there is a chance that they might be replaced in the not-too-distant future. India has said publicly that it is looking for replacements, although no deal has yet been made.

NOAA Gulfstream IV

The NOAA might be one of the easiest Gulfstreams on this list, especially as the Administration has just moved to a new operations centre at Lakeland, Florida.

This aircraft is known as the storm chaser. It flies over developing storms to measure and track them, and send the data back to base. The aircraft has two main measuring tools for this.

The first, a GPS dropwindsonde, is dropped from the bottom of the aircraft. It measures humidity, temperature and pressure, as well as GPS Doppler frequency shifts as it travels downwards.

Once the data has been analysed, it is sent to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center, where it is included in the hurricane model runs.

The aircraft’s tail has been modified to house a doppler radar, which makes tit almost instantly recognisable. A protrusion contains a slow-spinning radar that looks at the structure of a storm to analyse its intensity.

The NOAA used to post a basic schedule of the aircraft’s movements on its website so it was easy to catch. That is not done any more, but the move from McDill Air Force base to Lakeland should make it even easier to see.

So next time that you see a Gulfstream, don’t automatically think that the passengers have just finished supping champagne. It could be performing vital research or keeping the country safe.