SOUTHWEST ASIA --
If anyone were to look inside an RQ-4 Global Hawk they would see nothing but an inorganic mix of hardware and wires, with no seat for a pilot.
Measuring 130 feet in width, this remotely piloted aircraft is capable of traversing 12,300 nautical miles in a single mission. The Global Hawk can fly up to 60,000 feet in altitude, some of which are controlled by Airmen assigned to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.
These Airmen guide and maintain the Global Hawks, serving as the brain and directing the aircraft from its nervous system on the ground.
To support the Global Hawks’ mission, the responsibilities of the 380th AEW Airmen are delineated into two main factions. The 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintains and cares for the Global Hawks, while the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron guides, coordinates and schedules the aircrafts’ movements.
Though the squadrons work independently from each other at times, they work together when it comes to launching and landing the aircraft. One Airman from each squadron sits in the Launch and Recovery Element, which is responsible for getting the aircraft to and from its target area safely.
When working in the LRE, Senior Airman Daryl, 380th EAMXS Global Hawk ground systems technician, is solely responsible for maintaining communication links with the aircraft.
“The importance in what I do is to provide capability for the pilot to fly the Global Hawk,” Daryl said. “I think about the impact of what my job entails, but I don't feel pressured because of how proven reliable the links are.”
Daryl establishes, monitors and maintains more than two different types of communication links with the Global Hawk. Due to the wireless nature of the links, more than one is necessary in case a link is lost, however that doesn’t happen often or for very long, according to Daryl.
Each link transmits information using different frequencies to ensure the LRE is in continual contact with the Global Hawk, yet the risk of an outsider hacking into any of the links is minimal, he said.
Once the Global Hawk is launched, the LRE maintains communication and control until a Mission Control Element, located in the U.S., is ready to take over with a verbal confirmation exchanged between pilots. The MCE is similar to the LRE, except a sensor operator is added to the crew. This individual monitors and operates instruments on the aircraft to gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information.
After the Global Hawk completes its mission, the MCE pilot guides the RPA back into the 380th AEW’s geographic region where the LRE pilot takes control again with another verbal affirmation, according to Capt. Joshua, 99th ERS Global Hawk pilot.
“Communication is vitally important when it comes to the Global Hawk,” Joshua said. “Not only are we talking to the pilot in the MCE, but we’re also talking to the air traffic control tower, aircraft maintainers and one of our pilots who we send out to get eyes-on during launch and recovery.”
Joshua, formerly a B-52 Stratofortress pilot, said he is impressed with the Global Hawk’s accuracy and precision when it comes to piloting itself.
There are a series of safety measures programmed into the Global Hawk in the highly unlikely case of total communication loss, according to Joshua. For example, during flight the aircrafts’ instructions are to fly to its next preprogrammed GPS location and then circle at a safe altitude until communication is restored, he said.
“So in the unlikely scenario that all communication went down, we still know exactly where and when the aircraft is and we’re able to communicate that information to all interested parties,” he said.
According to Joshua, the biggest limiting factor for the Global Hawk is weather. Storms and ice are the primary concerns, so pilots have to check for those conditions and guide the RPA away from them.
Maneuvering away from bad weather however, does not prevent all wear and tear from impacting the aircraft. This is where the 380th EAMXS steps in to care for and maintain the Global Hawks.
According to A1C Vincent, 380th EAMXS Global Hawk technician, maintainers are responsible for inspecting and replacing components, cleaning, touching up paint, clearing any fault alerts, and towing the aircraft to and from the flight line. When not in flight, Global Hawks are stored in temperature controlled aircraft hangars to protect internal sensitive equipment from extreme heat and cold.
“A lot of people depend on us to get the plane in the air,” said Vincent. “So we make sure there are no write-ups and that it’s ready to fly. We’re aware of the impact we have on the Global Hawk and everyone depending on it.”
Without the combined efforts of these Airmen, the Global Hawk would not be able to deliver all-weather, day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to support U.S. forces on the ground. More importantly, it would not be capable of providing near real-time information to assist in saving lives during worldwide peacetime, contingency and wartime operations.
(Due to safety and security concerns last names were removed.)