'Hawk Eye' watches over reconnaissance aircraft

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Combat Camera Team
A sandy, tan combat boot weighs down on the accelerator in a pearly white Pontiac G8 GT speeding down the runway, bringing the sports sedan to a roaring 120 miles per hour quickly and easily with more than 360 horses under the hood. Workers on the flightline pay little mind to the vehicle as it races along the asphalt, where only aircraft typically set their wheels to land and take off.

Inside the sedan, a captain tightly grips the black leather steering wheel with one hand and a radio with the other, spouting directions to a pilot controlling the unmanned aircraft system, as it takes off for a day-long reconnaissance mission.

"Part of being the mobile driver, or what we call the Hawk Eye, is to be an extra set of eyes and ears for the pilot who is flying in (the launch and recovery element) and doesn't have visibility of the aircraft," said Capt. William Izzo, an RQ-4 Global Hawk pilot deployed to the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron in Southwest Asia. "We line up behind the aircraft and let the pilot inside the shelter know everything is clear, so when he departs, he isn't going to run into any traffic.

"Once the aircraft starts rolling, it's fairly slow at first, but builds up its speed. We're following behind it, ensuring it maintains center line ... using our radios to talk to the pilots inside the shelter," the captain said. "It almost feels like actually being in the aircraft. We're just behind it."

Deploying as a Global Hawk pilot differs from deploying as a manned-aircraft pilot, in that most of a UAS pilot's combat missions are flown from a mission-control element at the home station in California.

Working cohesively with the Hawk Eye driver, who has eyes on the aircraft as it takes off, the pilot in the LRE controls the UAS as it take lifts off from the runway. Once the UAS is airborne and stable, the pilot at the MCE at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., takes over the mission until the UAS is ready to land.

"We do have the pilots back at Beale (AFB) who fly the missions themselves, but the LRE here will do the take off and landings to be that extra safety factor, because we are within line of sight, whereas Beale (AFB) has to do everything via satellite," Captain Izzo said. "Once the aircraft is outside the local airspace, then we'll hand it off to the mission pilots back at Beale (AFB).

"Obviously, the take offs and landings are critical phases of flight, so we are out here backing them up with the landing and takeoff portions of the flight," he said.

Though there are many differences between unmanned and manned aircraft, UAS pilots and maintainers go through similar essential tasks to ensure the aircraft is ready to fly.

"We pretend like it's just a normal aircraft," Captain Izzo said. "We have an exterior inspection checklist. We go through all the checklist items and walk around the plane looking for any leaks, damages or something maybe maintenance may have missed." 

Once it is determined the Global Hawk is ready for flight, a maintenance crew powers on the aircraft and ensures there is a link between the UAS and the pilot in the LRE.

"It is almost similar to an actual aircraft ... (but) the pilot can't see anything until the aircraft is actually running and he has a valid link with the aircraft," Captain Izzo said. "So the engines must be running and powered up for the pilot to actually see what's going on."

In the air, the RQ-4 Global Hawk provides high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to support joint combatant forces throughout the area of responsibility, also providing near-real-time coverage using imagery intelligence.

"We're up there flying at high altitudes, taking imagery requested by the user on the ground -- combatant commanders or intelligence communities," Captain Izzo said. "We work with the Army and Marines, as well as the Air Force. We have their controllers on the ground, who actually communicate with us (in) real time. They give us coordinates and we'll give them the imagery they requested."

The Global Hawk's ability to stay aloft for more than 24 hours, at altitudes above 50,000 feet, is one of many capabilities in the myriad aircraft assets that lend to the fight in the AOR.

"We're getting the intelligence to supply the fighters and the troops, whereas tankers are getting information from fighter aircraft so they can get their fuel," Captain Izzo said. "It's basically all intertwined and pretty complex on how things work.

"I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to do what I do and support the people on the ground," he said. "Seeing what it's like for the (troops), and knowing that we can provide the intelligence they might need to save lives, it definitely makes you feel good about what you're doing out here."