This morning, I got a chance to participate in a blogger roundtable Q&A with Brig. Gen. Guy M. Walsh, commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. Walsh, who until recently commanded the 175th Wing, Maryland Air National Guard out of Baltimore, took command of the new 451st Air Expeditionary Wing in Kandahar in July.
The 451st operates an interesting mixed bag of aircraft: roughly a dozen A-10 close air support aircraft, C-130j combat airlift aircraft, the HH-60 “Pave Hawk” combat search and rescue variant of the Blackhawk, a EC-130 Compass Call and a joint expeditionary deployment of Navy and Marine Corps EA6-B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft to provide jamming of Taliban cell phone and radio communications and remote-detonated IEDs, and over 50 unmanned aerial systems, including Predators and Reapers.
There have been a number of Predator crashes in Afghanistan recently; over the weekend, the Air Force had to shoot down a Reaper UAV that had failed to go into fail-safe when positive control was lost, and was flying north out of Afghani airspace. According to a written statement from Office of the Secretary of Defense Chris Isleib earlier this year, “Since 1994 the Air Force has procured 195 Predators. 65 have been lost due to Class A mishaps.” Of those aircraft lost in accidents, 36 percent were attributed to human error. And 15 percent of accidents occurred during landing.
I asked Brig. Gen. Walsh about the challenges of operating the Predator and other UASs in Afghanistan. He said that one of the biggest challenges pilots were facing when he arrived was dealing with the handling characteristics of the Predator at the end of a mission, when it was flying extremely light, in high crosswinds. He said it could be like “trying to fly a paper airplane.”
“We have about 50 unmanned aerial vehicles, so it is a major part of the operations that we run over here. The very straightforward difference (between flying combat aircraft and UASs) is, when you go in as the pilot of the predator, number one– you’re making strokes on a keyboard. Number 2 is that you’re sort of looking through a soda straw. So there’s a couple challenges there that both the pilots have and that the systems operators have that are tremendously huge. As an A-10 pilot, some of these things were easy — to me, it’s a lot easier when you have a stick and rudder in our hand as opposed to the keyboard.”
“The folks we have here at Kandahar are the Launch and Recovery element (LRE). These folks, their primary job is taking these UASs through take-off and landing and doing some of the systems checks with them. But the actual flights of these aircraft is actually being done from back in the US, from Creech AFB back there. And that’s where the missions are actually being flown. ”
“So most of the jobs we have here at Kandahar is with takeoff, landing, putting them in orbit, doing a few quick systems checks when they’re off and running, and then the maintenance piece. And that’s absolutely huge. The systems that we have on predator are relatively simple systems. If you’ve seen the airplane before, there’s not a lot to them — it’s much more…when you talk about the Predator–it’s about a snowmobile engine, is what htat thing is. It’s a relatively inexpensive piece of machinery. The key in the expense of the aircraft itself are in the surveillance capabilities, the (electro-optical/infrared) ball they have on there.
“One of the first challenges I had when I got here was that the pilots were faced with these crosswinds. This airplane is a bit lighter, and it becomes much more difficult to handle, almost like trying to fly a paper airplane, when it gets very very light. So as we try to stretch the capabilities of the airplane out here, and you run into crosswind landing problems, it’s not like back in Baltimore where you can go 20 miles down the road and find a runway that’s directly into the wind. I know that has been one of the issues we’ve had — that the pilots have had some challenges with some of hte strong winds we’ve had here and up in Jalalabad where we also fly the Predator missions.”
Walsh said that he had seen no problems at all in UAS operations caused by issues during handoff between the LRE and the mission pilots.