From aerodromes to Reaper
From Aerodromes to Reaper,
RPAs Push Limits of Technology
By Senior Airman A.K., 432nd
Wing, 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs.
Las Vegas, Nevada – (AFNS)
– November 8, 2013 – The RPA actually got its start as early as 1896, when
something called aerodromes at the time, were used to test the capabilities of
new flying devices and to test if it was even possible for a heavier-than-air
craft to achieve sustained flight. In May 1896, Dr. Samuel Langley proved that
mechanical flight was possible with his Aerodrome No. 5.
A schematic drawing of Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome No. 5 is
pictured. The aircraft made the world’s first successful flight of an unpiloted,
engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft of substantial size on May 6, 1896.
Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome No. 5 unpiloted aircraft is displayed
at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The aircraft made the world’s
first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft
of substantial size on May 6, 1896.
From that point on, the shape, design and technology
structure of the unmanned aircraft evolved over the years, improving each time.
Just over two decades later in 1941, the OQ-2 Radioplane
became the first mass-produced unmanned aerial vehicle. By 1945, only a few
years later, radioplane factories had produced around 15,000 aircraft for use as
The QQ-2A Radioplane is on display in the World War II Gallery at the
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. In the mid-1930s,
radio-controlled model airplanes became the basis for the U.S. Army Air Corps'
development of the aerial targets for antiaircraft gunnery training.
Workers assemble the “Liberty Eagle” aircraft at a factory
In 1918, the U.S. Army became interested in unmanned flight
and ordered 25 Liberty Eagle aircraft. The intent was for the aircraft to be
used as an aerial torpedo.
Since achieving the first sustained controlled flight, the
idea of unmanned flight has grown to be one of the most useful aircraft
technology systems in modern history. Today, RPAs have transformed from a basic
tool into high-tech machines, providing assistance during both humanitarian and
war time situations.
1990s - 2000:
In January 1994, more than half a century after the advent of
the first mass-produced UAV, the Air Force's modern-day remotely piloted
aircraft program was born.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. received an
advanced concept technology demonstration contract to produce a medium altitude
endurance "unmanned" aerial vehicle. This new system would be called the RQ-1
Predator and would be based off its precursor the GNAT 750, which initially
debuted in 1989 and was used for long-endurance tactical surveillance.
A mere six months after the contract was established, the new
aircraft achieved its first flight in July 1994. While the flight was a success,
the Air Force then had to bring in military pilots, navigator-trained rated
officers and non-rated officers to learn to use the new technology.
"I was the first person to receive a permanent change of
station and the ninth person to actually enter into the program," said Lt. Col.
Eric, 432nd Wing Director of Staff. "I came in short notice in November of 1995
from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. In May 1996 I went to ground school in San
Diego at the General Atomics headquarters. Afterward, I went to flight training
at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where the Army had the only system in the states at the
Major John Box's Predator
displayed in the French official booth at Le
Bourget Airshow 1999
John Box, a retired Air Force pilot, trained to become an RPA
pilot in June 1996. He said because the system wasn't produced by the Air Force,
the new equipment did not come with technical orders, making the task of
learning how to use the system rather challenging.
"Much of what we learned was by word of mouth from our
instructors and not delivered in a military format," he said. "That took an
adjustment and I found it frustrating and challenging but very exciting. I often
had to deal with emergency situations that no one had ever before encountered.
Every time I flew the system, I learned something new. We were developing books
and adding new information to them daily. I wasn't trained for this type of work.
Others may have got us started off on a better foot, but I believed in the
concept and was committed to making it happen as best I could. It was a 'cowboy'
atmosphere and I really enjoyed it."
Indian Springs AFB, November 28, 2000
By 1995 it was decided that the Predator's capabilities were
needed to aid U.N. and NATO efforts in Europe. The Predator and Air Force
personnel were deployed to Taszar, Hungary, to provide support from 1995 until
Eric deployed to Hungary in August 1996 after completing
training. It was during this deployment that he felt the continued challenges of
integrating a new form of air power into the Air Force's inventory.
"There were two Air Force pilots and a General Atomics
instructor pilot with us ... only the three of us to accomplish the mission," he
said. "There were no publications, technical orders, regulations or guidance
that we hadn't created ourselves. We had to rewrite the very first technical
orders that we were given and put them into Air Force terminology."
Eric said maintainers were also dealing with some of the same
issues as the pilots - learning by observation.
Here's how we do the 50-hour engine inspection... : Indian
Springs AFB, November 28, 2000
"The General Atomics technician was there saying 'here's how
we do the 50-hour engine inspection,' and our guys were watching him do it," he
said. "But there were no publications or technical orders to break down the
process of actually doing it. It took almost three years before we actually
started getting valid technical orders on the systems, and it was the same the
guidance and everything else. Today we are used to having regulations outlining
how people do their jobs and laying down boundaries--we didn't have those."
In October 1996 Eric found himself testing new waters for the
Predator while facing the challenges of learning new technology and not having
Air Force publications or technical orders to break down the processes.
"On Oct. 1, 1996, during my deployment, I got the dubious
distinction of being the first person in the military to be investigated for a
safety investigation board for crashing a remotely piloted airplane," he said "At
the time I was doing everything I could to save the airplane. That was my first
and foremost concern, but because we didn't have any resources to help us, we
kind of made it up as we went. We actually had a General Atomics engineer in the
ground control station with us. We said, 'what if we try this?' and he would
reply, 'well I don't know we've never tested that before.' We just didn't have
any other choices so we were doing it the best that we could."
In the end it was determined the crash occurred because the
engine had been incorrectly rebuilt. Although the incident resulted in the loss
of an aircraft, Eric said it was a learning experience.
"We didn't have any publications to follow and we lost an
airplane because of it," he said. "But, we learned a lot from it ... we were
pioneers on the leading edge of this system making Air Force leaders understand
what kind of capabilities this thing had, what we could do with it, and how to
move forward with it."
Springs AFB, November 28, 2000
It was during this time when Eric and John were learning to
fly the Predator that James Clark, at the time an Air Force colonel assigned to
the Pentagon, was chosen by Gen. Ronald Fogleman, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air
Force, to examine Predator operations. Clark, who is known as "Snake" by many,
was chosen because he had no experience with RPAs. Fogleman wanted someone with
an outsider's perspective.
"What I found [during my study] was remarkable," he said.
"This little drone could fly hundreds of miles away and provide color television
and infrared video surveillance of enemy activity, without risking the life of a
pilot. In a control van, which was a converted NASCAR transporter trailer, I
watched pilots and sensor operations sitting in front of computer screens
actually flying this thing - simply remarkable."
While Snake was studying Predator operations in D.C., and
pilots, mechanics and other RPA community members were providing assistance in
deployed locations, Creech Air Force Base, Nev., was continuing to be built up
in order to become home to the Air Force's premier RPA wing.
The 11th Reconnaissance Squadron was the first squadron to
stand up at Creech AFB. This milestone also marked the point when the Air Force
RPA program's dynamic objectives took on a new strategic focus. After the
squadron stood up the 11th RS deployed members to support Detachment 3, which
was under Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"While deployed we were Detachment 3 under DARPA," Eric said.
"When the Air Force took over we became the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron
deployed; then once the Air Force turned to the expeditionary concept, [the
squadron] became the 11th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. I was actually
the first formal commander of the 11th ERS when it stood up.
While the 11th ERS was deployed and redefining itself as a
combat asset, Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field was continuing to grow
back home in preparation to become the home of additional RPA squadrons.
Springs AFB, November 28, 2000
"Indian Springs was a pretty bare base then," John said.
"Most of the existing infrastructure was dilapidated, early Cold War era
construction. They converted the small Base Exchange into our Intel vault and
they renovated a small building across the street for our squadron operations
facility. We ate at a small chow hall that originally supported up-range and
transient aircraft operations. There was a recreation center/gym converted from
several other old buildings 'kluged' together."
Mardi Wilcox, who was the squadron maintenance officer in
1995, took her new task head on despite having few resources available at the
"I was super excited to be selected as the first maintenance
officer in the Air Force to be assigned to a UAV unit," she said. "It was
cutting edge technology and the UAVs we had at the time were special in that way.
No one else had them, and a lot of people had never heard of them. We were
excited because there was no limit to what they could do ... we could only dream
about what was to come. We had one double-wide trailer and one small hangar.
Shelters for the UAVs were canvas structures across the ramp. It was 10 tons of
stuff in a 1 ton bag."
During the late 1990s the program was still in its beginning
phases. For some this was exciting but to others it seemed less than promising.
However, Wilcox said she had a much different outlook on the subject.
"There were a lot of naysayers [at the time]," she said. "Many
thought it was just another 'thing' that would just go away ... but our major
command leadership made it work. I think for the most part my people loved it.
It was new, it was on the leading edge and for the majority of my folks, we
wanted it to work. We set the foundation for what the program is today."
2000 - Present:
After Operation Allied Force wrapped up in mid-1999, the Air
Force was left to figure out what to do with this still relatively new
technology. By early 2000 the RQ-1 Predator, which had just proved its
capabilities overseas, was armed and became known as the MQ-1 Predator.
An MQ-1 Predator armed with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile
flies a training mission. The MQ-1’s primary mission is interdiction and
conducting reconnaissance against critical, time-sensitive targets.
"As part of the 'lessons learned' from Operation Allied
Force, it was determined that if the Predator had a weapon on it, we could cut
the time between identifying a target and then destroying it," Snake said. "On
Feb. 16, 2000, Predator 3034 took its first successful Hellfire shot from the
air, and to all of our surprise, it worked."
This new capability arrived just in time, as events on the
morning of Sept. 11, 2001, changed many lives and the helped define the future
of the Predator.
"We watched the attack on the World Trade Center, until we
were shocked by flight 77 as it crashed into the Pentagon," Snake said. "Late on
the evening of Sept. 12, a lone C-17 took off from an airfield on the west coast
with its cargo of Predators and Hellfire missiles. Days later, one of America's
first responses to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was in place and ready for
Predator's shelter : Indian
Springs AFB, November 28, 2000
After 9/11 the MQ-1 Predator proved itself resilient and
capable during operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The success of
RPAs during these operations resulted in an increased desire for RPA
capabilities in future operations.
Lt. Col. Russell, who was the RPA assignments officer at Air
Force Personnel Center in 2005, remembers trained RPA pilots were a constant
need for the Air Force. At the time, there were general officers everywhere who
wanted every training spot filled in order to support U.S. and partner nation
Pilots, maintainers and intelligence Airmen were pulled from
several different platforms from across the Air Force to meet the demand RPA
community's growing demands.
In 2007, the 432nd Wing was activated at Creech AFB as the
Air Force's first wing comprised entirely of RPAs, which was a sign of the
program's rapid growth.
A year later the demand for RPAs had grown so significantly
that the wing expanded and became dual-hatted as the 432nd Wing/432nd Air
Expeditionary Wing, capable of offering full-spectrum support to overseas
operations while still supporting the 432nd Wing's operate, train and equip
"In 2011, I came out to Creech and was qualified as a MQ-9
pilot," Russell said. "Having been a part of the assignment process in the past,
it's good to see how the tribe has grown. The Air Force is very tribal; I used
to be an F-15 pilot, so I used to be part of that 'tribe'. Now it's neat to see
the growth of an RPA tribe, made up of people from all different backgrounds."
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft sits on a ramp.
The Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely
piloted aircraft that is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset
and secondarily against dynamic execution targets.
As Russell arrived at Creech in 2011, the MQ-1 and its
successor, the MQ-9 Reaper reached 1 million total flight hours - just 16 years
after the program initially began.
Just over two years later, on Oct. 22, 2013, the Air Force's
MQ-1 and MQ-9 RPAs doubled that by achieving 2 million cumulative flight hours.
Today, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 continue to be flown from 8,000
miles away in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, patrolling
the skies and providing critical support and protection to U.S. and coalition
forces on the ground.
It is because of the dedication and diligence of the men and
women past and present that the RPA community has gotten where it is today. As a
testament to the vital role of the RPA community during the past 18 years,
Predator 3034, the first RPA to test the Hellfire, and the first to shoot in
combat on Oct. 7, 2001, is now displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and
Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Related articles :
Options for Enhancing the DoD's UAV Programs (1998-09)
DOD's Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations ATCD (1998-09)
Enfin un nouveau drone tactique pour l'U.S. Army ? (1998-12-08)
Predator B: the Most Innovative Design in 2001 (2001-06-18)
Background Briefing on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (2001-10-31)