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RQ-1 flies first sortie in controlled airspace over Haiti

  • Published
  • By Capt. Nathan D. Broshear
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern)
An RQ-1 Predator, tail number 3210, took off at 11:07 A.M. today from Aeropuerto Rafael Hernandez outside Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The remotely piloted aircraft mission marked the first time the system has been used to support humanitarian operations and the first time RPVs have operated from an active civilian airport, taking turns on the runway with airlines, cargo planes and helicopters.

The "proof-of-concept" mission was the culmination of rapid coordination between Federal Aviation Administration officials, the U.S. Air Force, the government of Haiti and various international aviation organizations, explained Maj. Jeff Bright, the 432d Wing Detachment commander in Puerto Rico.

Approximately 50 Airmen from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., deployed to Puerto Rico on Jan 18th -- and were ready to fly RPA sorties within 24 hours. Approvals and coordination between the government of Haiti, the FAA and local airfield authorities, was completed on January 25th.

"The second aircraft to take off today was brand new to the Air Force, we haven't even had a chance to paint our unit insignia on the side," said 1st Lt. Frances Dixon, the maintenance officer in charge with the 432nd Maintenance Group. The team brought six aircraft to Puerto Rico; their mission will provide 24 hour a day coverage over Haiti using two RQ-1's, with the other four aircraft rotating into the orbit.

"Everyone involved in making this happen understood the urgency of getting this capability to the Joint Task Force," said Maj. Bright. "We're able to provide full motion video to the government of Haiti, U.S.A.I.D., U.S. military members, the United Nations, relief agencies and non-governmental organizations -- anyone involved in helping the people of Haiti who has a need to access this video will be able to view, in real-time, where their services are needed."

Pilots in Puerto Rico takeoff and land the aircraft, then aircrews at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., remotely fly the RQ-1 over Haiti via satellite while coordinating movements with relief teams on the ground. Real-time video from the aircraft is fed through a Distributed Ground Control Station at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where technicians assist in analyzing and interpreting data and imagery. The video is simultaneously sent to end users via satellite. The systems will provide more than 20 hours of real-time video across the entire country of Haiti, and can move to any location to support emergency requests.

"The breakthrough of the RQ-1 is that a person on the ground can open their laptop, and watch the video in real-time, talk to the pilot and extend their vision beyond the horizon, over mountains, past roadblocks and into the regions cut off from support," said Maj. Bright. "Our job is to get the RQ-1's video camera where international aid workers cannot reach to identify people and places most in need."

In order to meet the demand for imagery in Iraq and Afghanistan, RPAs involved in these operations were not affected by the team's deployment. The aircraft deployed to Puerto Rico are used as training systems. "The students at the RPA schoolhouse already train 12 hours per day -- in order to make this operation happen, we've extended the training day by 4 hours and will fly our remaining RQ-1s at Creech for more sorties per day."

While RPAs often operate in military controlled ranges and on the battlefield, they only occasionally transit FAA-controlled airspace. Operating out of an international airport, alongside civilian air traffic, is a historic first, said Brig. Gen. Darryl Burke, the Air Forces Southern Vice Commander acting as the Air Component Coordination Element with JTF-Haiti.

"Today the Air Force team proved remotely piloted aircraft can operate safely alongside civilian, military and international air traffic during a large-scale air relief campaign," said General Burke. "Together with our international partners and with the help of committed FAA administrators, the Air Force is ensuring every capability in our fleet can contribute to the continued success of JTF-Haiti."