Global Hawk maintainers deliver ISR capability to warfighters

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Christopher Boitz
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing
The hard work of crew chiefs, avionics and ground communication specialists, who quietly work on a modern-day weapon system, enables a capability important to every deployed service member, and the way they go about it is nothing short of special.

The maintainers, assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, are responsible for maintaining and ensuring the RQ-4 Global Hawk is able to deliver round-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and communication support to ground forces and aerial platforms conducting missions in Operation Inherent Resolve.

“The Global Hawk provides imagery intelligence and signals intelligence and delivers it warfighters and decision makers,” said Master Sgt. Matthew, the lead production superintendent. “It’s constantly taking imagery and feeding it back for analysis. It can be used to identify a friendly forces or enemies, or do long-term target development and even track where enemies are moving equipment.”

Being able to provide near real-time coverage has enabled combatant commanders to act on better information and make key decisions, which impact coalition forces combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But it also provides a crucial element to the frontlines that is critical to campaign success, according to maintainers.

“One of the many things the Global Hawk uses is the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, which is a system that essentially provides Wi-Fi to the battlefield,” Matthew said. “It allows ground troops to contact aircraft when they’re in need of assistance, such as close air support. Getting the Global Hawk in the air is one of the highest priorities out here.”

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude remotely piloted aircraft, has been employed in overseas contingency operations since November 2001. Keeping the asset in the sky is no easy task.

Maintainers constantly repair and quick-turn Global Hawks for the next sortie. Most maintainers are still learning the aircraft and how it functions, which provides them opportunities to think outside of the box to create solutions.

“We do a lot of maintenance and troubleshooting issues on a very high-tech aircraft where the answers are not always available in the technical data. We have to work hard to get it ready in time for the next mission,” said Senior Airman Marty, a Global Hawk avionics technician. “It’s a unique plane and it presents challenges to us. I’m always learning something new about the aircraft and figuring out new ways to solve problems.”

The Global Hawk is operated by two different cells, the Launch and Recovery Element and the Mission Control Element.

The Launch and Recovery Element performs maintenance and prepares the aircraft for flight with a small group of pilots launching and landing the Global Hawk through line-of-sight capabilities in the area of responsibility. Once the aircraft is airborne and a link is established with the Mission Control Element, the controls are passed over.

“We have two pieces to the puzzle; the ground control station and the aircraft. We’re running two aircraft systems that we have to bring together for a launch,” Matthew said. “It’s a unique aircraft launch because the cockpit is geographically separated from the aircraft. It has to be extremely precise so the cockpit can link with the aircraft. Every launch is truly an event.”

While most aircraft missions last eight to 10 hours, the Global Hawk offers extraordinary range and flexibility to meet mission requirements. The unmanned aircraft can perform missions which last up to 30 hours.

“When the aircraft sorties last that long, scheduled maintenance comes sooner,” Marty said. “However, the aircraft flies at high altitudes and comes back less worn than other aircraft. It’s different compared to maintaining other jets.”

Recently, a Global Hawk set a record for completing a 32.5-hour combat sortie.

Sustaining the Global Hawk’s presence in the battlespace takes maintainers like Marty to keep the ISR asset flying incredibly long sorties.

“The Airmen bring it every day. Around the Global Hawk, there is no mediocre day; every day is a new challenge,” Matthew said. “We really require our people to think critically to get this aircraft up in the air. These guys are on a high-ops tempo and they perform at a high level.”

The tempo and upkeep of one of the most demanded assets in the area of responsibility not only keep the maintainers busy, it also illustrates how their mission is vital.

“Working on the Global Hawk is a lot of fun. I love to turn wrenches and enjoy the opportunities it provides me,” Marty said. “ISR is very important. It might not be as exciting as some other things going on out here, but it gives me a sense of pride.”

(Editor’s note: Due to safety and security reasons, last names were removed.)