The physical and optical properties of Saharan dust aerosol measured by the Met Office C-130 during the Saharan Dust Experiment (SHADE) are presented. Additional radiation measurements enable the determination of the aerosol optical depth, τaerλ, and the direct radiative effect (DRE) of the mineral dust. The results suggest that the absorption by Saharan dust is significantly overestimated in the solar spectrum if standard refractive indices are used. Our measurements suggest an imaginary part of the refractive index of 0.0015i is appropriate at a wavelength λ of 0.55 μm. Different methods for determining τaerλ=0.55 are presented, and the accuracy of each retrieval method is assessed. The value τaerλ=0.55 is estimated as 1.48 ± 0.05 during the period of heaviest dust loading, which is derived from an instantaneous DRE of approximately −129 ± 5 Wm−2 or an enhancement of the local planetary albedo over ocean of a factor of 2.7 ± 0.1. A comparison of the DRE derived from the C-130 instrumentation and from the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite is presented; the results generally showing agreement to within a factor of 1.2. The results suggest that Saharan dust aerosol exerts the largest local and global DRE of all aerosol species and should be considered explicitly in global radiation budget studies.