Category Archives: Drones

SpaceX Successfully Launches The U.S. Air Force’s Secretive X-37B Unmanned Spacecraft Just Before Hurricane Irma Reaches Florida

SpaceX launched the Pentagon’s mysterious X-37B orbital space drone just before the Hurricane Irma hit Florida.

While people prepared for Hurricane Irma, the 45th Space Wing successfully launched a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 10 a.m. on Sept. 7.

The Falcon 9, a two-stage rocket designed by SpaceX for reliable and cost-efficient transport of satellites and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, carried into orbit a U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), marking the fifth space flight for the unmanned orbital vehicle program and its first onboard a Falcon 9.

The X-37B program completed its fourth classified mission on May 7, 2017, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending the total number of days spent in orbit to 2,085.

Approximately eight minutes after the launch, SpaceX successfully landed the Falcon 9 first-stage booster back at Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

“I’m incredibly proud of the 45th Space Wing’s contributions to the X-37B program,” Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander, said in a public release. “This marks the fifth successful launch of the OTV and its first onboard a Falcon 9. A strong relationship with our mission partners, such as the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, is vital toward maintaining the Eastern Range as the World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.”

Whilst the “OTV is designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operate experiments, which can be returned to and examined on Earth,” the details of its mission remain classified.

Since its first flight in 2010, several theories about the role of the X-37B have emerged: according to someone, the orbital drone is a space-based weapons platform carrying a weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target; others believe the OTV is a space ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) platform able to carry a wide variety of sensor packages in its internal cargo bay; some analysts believe that the X-37B is *simply* a research platform used to perform tests in space environment.

OTV-5 was launched by Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, a historic pad that has been used to support U.S. space programs since the early 1960s: originally built to support the Apollo program, LC-39A supported the first Saturn V launch (Apollo 4), and many subsequent Apollo missions, including Apollo 11 in July 1969. Beginning in the late 1970s, LC-39A was modified to support space shuttle launches, hosting the first and last shuttle missions to orbit in 1981 and 2011, respectively.
In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA for the use of Launch Complex 39A. Extensive modifications to LC-39A have been made to support launches of both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

LC-39 along with the rest of KSC facility’s buildings built after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are supposed to withstand winds between 130 and 135 miles per hour.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper: A Rare Look inside Remotely Piloted Aircraft Operations at Holloman Air Force Base

We Went Inside USAF MQ-9 Reaper Training and Operations at Holloman AFB.

We never heard it. Out of the corner of my eye in a cloudless, bright blue New Mexico desert sky I saw the glint of a reflection over our bus. I glanced outside again. Nothing. No sound. Nothing in the sky. Then the glint flashed again, and this time I spotted it. But it was too late. The Reaper was already upon us.

This was the first time I had seen a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper combat aircraft in flight. The experience stands in stark contrast to the thunder of fast jets or the whine of turboprops. In fact, the quiet whirring of the little 900 horsepower Honeywell turboprop seemed oddly toy-like. It seemed that way, if it wasn’t powering one of the most effective combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal.

Holloman AFB in New Mexico is home to the U.S. Air Force 49th Wing Remotely Piloted Aircraft squadrons. The units include the 6th, 9th and unique 29th Attack Squadrons of the 49th Wing. This is the primary school for teaching new pilots to fly the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. The school provides initial qualification training for the two person aircrews that fly the Reaper. In fact the 49th Wing’s 29th Attack Squadron (ATKS) is reported to be the only complete training unit for MQ-9 Reaper aircrews in the U.S. Air Force. This distinction puts their capabilities in high demand.

Out of the clear, blue New Mexico sky an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies over us at Holloman AFB.

Remotely piloted aircraft have been the subject of misconceptions that are largely the result of fiction about “drones” or equipment that somehow spins out of human control. It is almost no more possible with a remotely piloted aircraft like the Reaper than it is with an onboard manned aircraft using a modern fly-by-wire flight control system.

There have been rare instances of adversaries jamming or supposedly taking control of remotely piloted aircraft, as with a December 2011 incident when the Iranian military managed to capture a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel remotely piloted aircraft. But this incident is more of an anomaly than the risk of hijacks using a manned aircraft, as with the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.

In fact, because security for the signal transmission that links the remotely piloted aircraft directly to its flight crew is codified and constantly improving, it is more likely that a onboard-manned aircraft can be hijacked than a remotely piloted aircraft. Remotely piloted aircraft can also be destroyed without risking the loss of flight crew, as was the case with an incident in September of 2009 in Afghanistan when U.S. combat aircraft destroyed a remotely piloted aircraft that suffered a rare control malfunction.

Last week TheAviationist.com gladly accepted a rare media invitation to see the RPA training operations at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The school operates several versions of the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator aircraft primarily for training new Predator aircrews.

A distant shot of Reapers at Holloman AFB being used in training missions over New Mexico.

During our tour of the facility, aircrews wore opaque adhesive tape over their name badges for operational security. The missions these aircrews are training for are real world. One instructor related a mission when a new Predator pilot, after extensive training, was tasked with employing live weapons against actual operational targets in a conflict zone only 37 minutes after receiving their full qualification. That level of operational readiness is unprecedented in nearly all current tactical aviation.

His name obscured by tape for operational security, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper pilot describes the video feed from live missions being flown over Holloman AFB.

Predator operators and aircraft live behind additional layers of security within security in the remote New Mexico desert at Holloman. Because the nature of remotely operated combat aircraft reduces deployment time to near zero being in one of the control vans at Holloman was tantamount to standing on an operational forward airstrip in a conflict zone.

A sensor ball mounted under the nose of an MQ-9. This contains various spectrum sensors and cameras and provides the flight crew with their view of the flight operations.

As we received our briefings the cockpit feed from optical sensors and flight control instruments on live aircraft in flight appeared on monitors. It looked like flying any light aircraft, whether it is a Cessna general aviation aircraft or a small, stealthy combat aircraft like the MQ-9 Predator. As we watched an MQ-9 practice landing approaches we could see the response to the pilot’s flight control inputs. These really are just another form of highly capable light combat aircraft.

A rare look into the “cockpit” of the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted combat aircraft.

In March of 2017 the website Military.com reported that USAF Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson told a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida that, “The U.S. Air Force now has more jobs for MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers than any other type of pilot position.”

With the expansion of remotely piloted aircraft operations and the demand for aircrews to fly them it is reasonable to expect that the 49th Wing at Holloman will continue to be a very busy place.

Operational security around reaper control vans is elevated since the training and missions are a critical asset.

 

Salva

Has A Drone Interfered With Blue Angels Display At Seafair Airshow Over Lake Washington?

Several people have spotted a drone apparently too close to the U.S. Navy display team’s F/A-18 Hornets.

On Aug. 4, 2017, the Blue Angels took part in Seafair Airshow over Lake Washington.

Along with the usual stunning aerobatics, people who were watching the Blue Angels on the Mercer Island side of the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington noticed a drone seemingly flying dangerously close to the aircraft. Among them, there was John Redifer, a reader of The Aviationist, who also filmed the clip that you can see here below.

“I was watching the Blue Angels air show yesterday on Friday 8/4/17 on the Mercer Island side of the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington, when a drone appeared in the flight path before the Blue Angels flew by. The drone appeared to be within 50′ of the Blue Angels,” said Redifer in an email to The Aviationist.

“There were about 1,000 people on the bridge with me, including about 12 WSP officers who were there for crowd control. Some people commented on the drone, and WSP officers were pointing at it and appeared to comment on their radios about it.”

The drone remained in the area for about 5 – 10 minutes, maybe even more. For sure it was still there when Redifer left the bridge at the end of the Blue Angels show.

A drone like the one (barely visible) in the short clip below has been spotted in the neighborhood in the past; for this reason Redifer believes it might be a local.

“Also a friend of mine at another nearby location during the show heard about the drone on a public Blue Angels radio conversation of the pilots who mentioned seeing the drone. Not sure of the words used, but she said the pilots were aware of the drone.”

Therefore, based on the footage and the account provided by John Redifer, it looks like a drone was airborne in the vicinity of the Blue Angels display area over/near Mercer Island.

Although we can’t completely rule out the possibility that the drone was cleared to operate there, it seems quite unlikely (if not impossible, considered the risk of interfering with the manned aircraft) that someone got the permission to fly so close to the display area. Actually, the video does not help in determining the actual position of the remotely piloted aircraft, however, based on the witnesses accounts, it is safe to say it appears to be closer than one might expect in case of an airshow: in fact, drones or helicopters that film airshows operate from a significant distance, leveraging powerful onboard sensors to feed a live stream of the aircraft performing their aerobatic maneuvers while remaining well outside the display area.

If you were there and have seen the drone let us know in the comments section below or by sending us an email.

For instance, recent airshows in Italy were filmed from high altitude by an Italian Air Force Predator drone, under positive radio and radar contact with the relevant ATC agencies, maintaining a racetrack located kilometers away from the airshow area.

Incidentally, the video emerged in the same days the Pentagon has cleared U.S. military bases across the country to shoot down drones if those drones become a hazard to flight operations or a security risk and the U.S. Navy claimed an Iranian UAV had unsafe and unprofessional interaction with an F/A-18E about to land on USS Nimitz.

H/T to John Redifer for sending us the clip and details about the alleged near miss.

Salva

The Italian Air Force Predator A+ Drones Appear With Brand New Markings At New Squadron Activation Ceremony

The Italian Air Force Predator A+ of the 32° Stormo (Wing) appear with new markings.

On Jul. 10, the Italian Air Force announced the reactivation of the 61° Gruppo (Squadron), disbanded in 1943, at Sigonella airbase, in Sicily, that will operate the MQ-1C Predator A+ UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) as a detached unit of the 32° Stormo, headquartered at Amendola, southeastern Italy.

The drones, piloted by aircrews coming from the 28° Gruppo and supported by ground crews of the 41° Stormo, based at Sigonella, will reinforce the Italian surveillance capabilities in southern Italy.

The new squadron will complement the other squadron of the 32nd Wing, the 28° Gruppo also based at Amendola, that already operates a mixed force of MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Predator A+ drones that are used to undertake a wide variety of tasks: along with the standard ISR (intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions, the Italian Predators have supported MEDEVACs (Medical Evacuations), TIC (Troops In Contact) operations, IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) monitoring, Convoy Escort in Iraq and Afghanistan; they have supported Operation Unified Protector in Libya, Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean Sea near Lampedusa (where they have monitored the migratory flows and consequent tragic ship wreckage off the island) and, from Djibouti, have monitored the seas off the coast of Somalia in anti-piracy missions. They are also currently deployed in Kuwait to support the US-led anti-ISIS operation in Syria and Iraq. Leveraging their persistence on the target area, the drones have also supported Police forces during major events.

Noteworthy, the photos of the 61° Gruppo reactivation ceremony posted by the Italian Air Force on social media exposed an interesting detail.

Indeed, for the very first time, the Predators belonging to the 32° Stormo appear to sport the standard Wing’s livery that includes the aircraft code 32-xx on the fuselage and the Wing’s emblem, the Hawk, on the the tails.

One of the Italian MQ-1C Predator A+ drones sporting the individual code 32-33.

With the addition of the new markings, the Predators of the 61° and 28 ° Gruppo will now feature the same kind of markings worn by the F-35A Lightning II aircraft of the 13° Gruppo of the 32° Stormo, Italy’s first JSF squadron that has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary (with special tail markings.)

Close up view of the Hawk applied to the tails of the Predator.

Image credit: ItAF

Salva

Salva

Thunderbird F-16D Ground Accident in Ohio, Global Hawk Drone Crashes in California.

RQ-4 Long Range RPV From Beale AFB Crashes in Mountains, Thunderbirds F-16D Crashes In Runway Rollover.

In two separate, unrelated incidents a U.S. Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon of the Thunderbirds flight demonstration team flipped over after landing at Dayton International Airport in Ohio and a U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk long range surveillance drone has crashed on a ferry mission from Edwards Air Force Base back to its home base at Beale AFB in California.

The Thunderbird F-16D involved in the crash is a two-seat variant often used for orientation and public relations flights with two people on board, a Thunderbird pilot and guest of the team.

There is a report that the second person on the Thunderbird F-16D may have been an enlisted Thunderbird maintenance team member. Enlisted members of the Thunderbird team are sometimes flown for orientation and media purposes. Reports from the crash scene suggest one of the persons in the aircraft was waving to emergency personnel from inside the aircraft. Because the aircraft came to rest upside down the canopy could not immediately be opened. Rescue personnel were on scene immediately following the accident.

In an official release on the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds’ Facebook page, the team’s social media liaison wrote, “The United States Air Force Thunderbirds were conducting a single-ship familiarization flight on Friday June 23, 2017. Upon landing there was a mishap at the Dayton International Airport with an F-16D Fighting Falcon at approximately 12:20 p.m. Emergency services are on the scene. We will provide more information as it becomes available.”

Although no official cause of the accident has been released, weather may have been a factor. As of 1:00 p.m. local time weather websites for the area reported thunderstorms with heavy rain and lightning with wind gusts up to 23 M.P.H.

A Thunderbird F-16D two-seat aircraft flipped over while on the ground at Dayton International Airport today in preparation for an airshow there this weekend. (Photo: WHIO-TV via Facebook)

On Jun. 2, 2016, a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 crashed shortly after the demo team had performed a flyover at the annual Air Force graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs. The pilot managed to eject before the aircraft crash landed in a field not far from Peterson AFB, Colorado. The cause of the F-16CM #6 crash was found in “a throttle trigger malfunction and inadvertent throttle rotation.”

In an unrelated incident a U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk long range surveillance drone had crashed on a ferry mission from Edwards Air Force Base back to its home base at Beale AFB in California on Jun. 21. Media reports said the remotely piloted vehicle was from the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale and was on a routine flight from Edwards Air Force Base. The aircraft went down near Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountains at approximately 1:45 p.m. PST on Wednesday, June 21.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is a key strategic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset for the U.S. Air Force. It is a long range, long duration surveillance asset. The RQ-4 uses synthetic aperture radar to “see through” overcast and nighttime conditions to provide precise imagery of terrain features. A series of infra-red and long-range electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors provide imagery and spectrum analysis of targets from the RQ-4. Some analysts compare the mission and performance of the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk to the manned TR-2/U-2 long range, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. There may be as few as four of the RQ-4s operating from Beale AFB.

A file photo of a U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk long range surveillance remotely piloted vehicle. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)