Soldiers from the 425th Brigade Special Troops Battalion conducted an Unmanned Aircraft System – or UAS – training flight on Thursday morning in the skies over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
With about a 14-foot wingspan, the Shadow stands around knee-high. A rear-facing motor is mounted on the back of the fuselage…trailed by an inverted-V-shaped tail section a few feet behind. On the front half of the aircraft, “El Super Beasto II” is hand-lettered onto the side, with a painted set of grinning teeth adorning the nose.
Once it’s secured in a catapult mounted on a trailer, the crew goes through its pre-flight checklist, ensuring everything is in order for takeoff. Then they walk a safe distance away and await a launch order.
“What you got to see here today was actually probably one of the smoothest takeoffs I’ve seen, probably ever,” Staff Sergeant Brandon Byers said. He helps oversee the maintenance section, which does everything from maintaining the aircraft to launching it.
He says the Shadow can stay airborne for up to around six hours in its current configuration. If the crew opts to use the larger 20-foot wings, it can stay aloft for up to nine hours.
Byers says the operators work off of a constant video feed from the UAS. The camera can pick up heat signatures and see impressions in the ground that trained crews are able to identify.
“They’re able to distinguish the different features and the marks on the ground through that payload, which is pretty amazing. The payload, it’s not..it’s actually pretty great footage for what it is, but it’s not spot on,” Byers said. “You’re not gonna pick out or decipher somebody’s facial features on it or anything like that.”
The Shadow is also equipped with a laser designator to “paint” targets for other aircraft.
“Say we’re spotting somebody placing an IED. We call it in; they say, “Hey, we’re sending an Apache on it.” If we can’t get coordinates or something like that, [we] laser designate the area, their missiles sync onto that…and…problem solved,” Byers said.
Though “painting” targets and looking at vehicle track marks in the dirt are a part of what the aircraft can do, Chief Warrant Officer III George Summers says that’s not its entire mission.
“What this system is designed to do is to provide ISR – that’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. And what that means is we’re out there answering questions for battlefield commanders,” Summers said. “So, if I’m an infantry commander, I don’t want to waste my time sending my troops over here in the wrong direction, so his questions are: enemy course of action, enemy capabilities, troop size, troop movement, and we get out there in front of and try to locate those answers for them.”
This particular flight was conducted to maintain the proficiency and readiness of the unit.
Summers says there are several factors that need to fall into place to launch one of their UASs – including weather.
“So, we can’t fly when it’s raining; we can’t fly when it’s too cold; we can’t fly in icing conditions or when it’s too windy,” Summers said. “So, normal things that would ground an aircraft is gonna ground us as well.”
When the weather cooperates, Summers says they have to coordinate with the FAA, Alaska Air Traffic Control, the Air Force, Army, and Army National Guard before the aircraft can take off.
During the training flights, the UAS is expected to remain in military restricted airspace. But, in the event it slips out of the designated area, precautions are taken to ensure the aircraft still operates safely.
“There is a chance that the aircraft could [go into] international airspace, so we take every precaution that it would and we pretend that it’s going to just in case that it would, it’s not accidentally, it’s planned, everyone’s aware, we’ve cleared airspace in three different ways: visually, with tower, and with radar,” Summers said.
So far, UAS operations from JBER have not strayed from military restricted airspace.
This is the second time a Shadow has been launched from JBER. The first was in November.