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Jul 15, 2018

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Lesson



Trust. Sometimes that’s all we have.

By Steven Athanas


It was a caution none of us had seen previously, at least not while operating the CQ-24A Unmanned K-MAX air vehicle. We were watching the operator maneuver the vehicle over Forward Operating Base Payne, which was some miles to the south of us. Because it was over the horizon, he was using the Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) datalink. Maneuvering manually under BLOS was nonstandard, but I had directed it as a contingency in case the Payne equipment, operated by two Marines we had previously trained, became inoperative. We had the ability to deliver autonomously from far away but I thought it useful to know if we could reposition manually if asked to do so by the landing zone controllers. After all, this was a war zone.


We soon discovered that manual control of a hovering, over the horizon vehicle was difficult work. The CQ-24A BLOS installation had the same limitation as any other: system lag. Once a control input was made from our command tent, it could take up to six seconds for its signal to bounce off the satellite down to the vehicle, influence its vector, then send the resulting change in attitude, speed, and position back to the operator’s Graphic User Interface (GUI) screen.


With this lag, it was quite easy to chase the aircraft. Our eventual technique was to make a one second input on the hand controller, release, then wait until we saw the vehicle’s icon stop on the GUI screen. Repeated as necessary, it was as tedious as it was inefficient. The BLOS installation was so basic there was no guarantee a one second displacement on the hand controller would produce the same amount of vehicle movement each time. And without external cameras, the operator had to contrive his entire closed-loop feedback from the GUI screen.


Unmanned K-MAX had begun as a fancy science project years before. The brainchild of Greg Lynch, a Lockheed Martin program manager and former Air Force helicopter pilot, he first fought his own superiors then Department of Defense officials over the feasibility of an unmanned helicopter delivering supplies to remote locations. He believed the K-MAX was the perfect platform for this, already proven by hundreds of thousands of manned flight hours. It was simple for a helicopter, which meant it was reliable to the extreme. It was also quiet. Its dual intermesher configuration didn’t require a tail rotor, making its aural signature among the lowest in the world.


The Unmanned K-MAX prototype, using off-the-shelf components, began winning the hearts and minds of executives and officials alike through a series of successful demonstrations, culminating in a final test in 2011. By this time the United States had absorbed significant ground convoy casualties in its two war zones, the ground convoy being the primary method of satisfying the logistical needs of the warfighter. Due to the desire to “get off the roads”, nearly overnight the fancy science project gathered sufficient gravitas for the Marines to send it to Afghanistan, as is, with us civilians as the maintainers and as the bulk of the operators.


The GUI had been slaved to a large TV monitor inside the command tent, which allowed everyone to see the Bingo Fuel caution light now glowing in bright amber on the left side of the screen. Though it was late December, temperature in the tent rose perceptually. As the Team Lead, I wanted calm. I asked the operator, “What does the manual say?”

The system engineer at the back of the tent interjected, firm in his opinion that the vehicle depart for home base immediately. I ignored him. I wanted to keep to procedure, seeing it as a good training opportunity. Our real missions had yet to begin and it was unclear how the team would perform outside the benign and rigidly controlled flight test environment. The fact that the engineer was not a pilot also mixed into my soup, which may have been cruel in hindsight.


The CQ-24A’s operator’s manual had ten pages of advisories, cautions, and emergencies. After a few seconds of looking, the operator found the entry. “It says that fuel remaining is insufficient to complete the mission without consuming fuel reserves. Abort the mission.”

It wasn’t that simple. First, the vehicle had to ascend vertically to its preprogrammed departure altitude, in this case a previously coordinated 1,500 feet AGL to avoid other Payne traffic. The operator could have allowed the vehicle to climb autonomously but in that mode the rate was anemic. It was standard procedure to use manual mode with its higher vertical velocity limits, which is what the operator did. Due to the system lag, he overshot his 1,500 foot perch slightly, which was acceptable, but still the climb had taken nearly 90 seconds, all while the Bingo Fuel light appeared to grow brighter.


Once the vehicle stabilized, the operator announced “Depart” while simultaneously mashing the appropriate hand controller button with his thumb (in tune with the science project nature of the program, these controllers were from an X-Box, configured appropriately). We all watched the vehicle’s GUI icon skip forward and gather airspeed on-screen, slowly leaving its wind line and pointing NNE for home.


The GUI had a winds aloft indicator and as the vehicle climbed further into the Afghanistan sky, we could see a substantial headwind component developing for the vehicle. The CQ-24A’s maximum airspeed was 80 knots while loaded, a value dialed back by its not insignificant 2,500 pound external payload, which then meshed with the wind component to produce an anemic 59 knots of groundspeed. This meant the return voyage would consume nearly an hour, a long time to absorb visual bombardment by the amber words.

The vehicle had barely settled into cruise flight when the BLOS connection icon went gray, indicating the datalink was down. We would receive no further information from the vehicle nor could we give it commands until the link was reestablished. Loss of BLOS was a common occurrence since it was dependent on the randomness of the satellite constellation orbiting the earth. Some satellites were stronger and newer than others. Others were down completely. It was a heavenly crap shoot.


Though we couldn’t see it, we were confident the vehicle had settled into its autonomous return. We also knew that the Bingo Fuel situation would unlatch itself if the onboard brain determined the conditions improved sufficiently. We considered jettisoning the load, which would allow the vehicle to accelerate to its unloaded maximum speed of 100 knots TAS. I decided against it; while the vehicle may dip into its fuel reserve, it was not in danger of flame-out and the amount of adverse publicity generated by a jettisoned load could set the program back before it had even begun.


I made this decision despite not knowing precisely how much fuel the vehicle had. To save cost and time, the onboard brain did not take a direct reading from the fuel tank. Instead, the fuel was estimated by algorithm and while it had been quite accurate in flight testing, it was just another sliver of uncertainty weighing down our thoughts.

Though we were presently blind, the tone in the tent was mostly calm. The system engineer sporadically voiced his opinion regarding our courses of action, the most prominent that the vehicle be directed to land under power at the preplanned recovery point outside our base perimeter. I knew that putting the vehicle down “outside the wire” meant a high probability it would be damaged or destroyed. The base was under surveillance by the Taliban and from a previous contract I knew they had a propensity for coming out of nowhere to wreck havoc on a grounded aircraft.


We waited patiently for a fresh datalink signal. Later we’d learn to monitor the satellite constellation on a separate laptop but at the start of the deployment we had no way of knowing what was occurring high above our heads. The engineer went mute for a time. After a few minutes the datalink restored automatically, the vehicle’s icon staggering anew across the screen. The amber words remained.


“Put it down at the recovery point. It’s not going to make it home,” declared the engineer.

I had great respect for the man who was nearly young enough (or me old enough?) for him to be my son. I had come to value his opinion during flight test, even staking decisions entirely upon it. But now he was in my realm. I stepped from the back of the tent and pulled from my pocket the greatest aviation invention known to mankind, the CPU-26A/P air navigation computer, better known as the E6B Whiz Wheel.


I spun the inner scale under the black pointer until I hit the vehicle’s current ground speed, then read the estimated flight time remaining opposite the distance to be flown. I repositioning the black pointer to fuel flow in gallons per hour and matched the estimated flight time on the inner scale to gallons to be burned on the outer. The output was multiplied by 6.7 for JP-8 density, then subtracted from the fuel remaining.

As calmly as possible, I announced, “it’ll land with 200 pounds.”


Coincidentally, this was our minimum landing fuel by directive. The tent went still for good after this. When the vehicle finally came within range of our Line of Sight antennas, a spot just before the outside recovery point, I quickly revalidated my computation. All good. A few minutes later we acquired the vehicle visually, then watched it decelerate for its programmed high hover above the landing pad. The operator wasted no time first getting the load on the ground, then the vehicle itself. It throttled back to ground idle without a hiccup.


When I climbed into the cockpit to shutdown the vehicle, I went right to the fuel gauge. Its needle was dead on the 200 pound graduation.


We gathered lessons that day that served us well later. We learned that airmanship was a thing whether the pilot was in the machine or not, but mostly that we could trust our vehicle. Unmanned K-MAX blew past its planned six-month deployment and delivered 4.8 million pounds of material, mostly under the cover of darkness, over the next 2 ½ years. We used it in ways never envisioned by the original Request for Proposal or later Concept of Operations. We retrograded material with it, bringing things from the forward bases back to us. We conducted hot hook-ups to payloads from an unmanned hover. We dropped and picked on the same sortie.


Above all, we saved lives. The formula said that the 4.8 million pounds Unmanned K-MAX moved equated to 48 men and women who would have otherwise been lost on ground convoys. That is what it was all about.

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  • Part 1 found here: https://www.ramrod.website/forum/aviation/capture-at-coy-dz Maxwell Hugo was on a military bus, in an aisle seat. Around him were his fellow POWs and, like him, on their way. None of them could enjoy the view through the windows because not only was it still dark but there were bags on their heads. Hugo guessed they hadn’t left the confines of the forest but an occasional flood light did seep through his fabric, allowing him to judge their rate of speed, which wasn’t much. It was mostly dark, which told him the bus wasn’t using external lighting. It was a good guess that wherever they were going, they’d arrive soon, otherwise how would bagged human cargo be explained to the local bobby? Hugo was sitting next to his aircraft commander, maintaining the same orientation they’d held inside the H-53 cockpit. Hugo guessed they’d been with their forced adventure for three hours now, which meant there was a lot of night left. Besides the driver, Hugo calculated there were two guards on the bus, one at the head of the aisle and another at its rear. At nearly 43” in length, their FAL rifles were tactically unsuited for the confined interior. The bus was stopping and starting, which Hugo surmised was at stop signs and road junctions. It stopped for a fifth time just as he turned over a thought in his brain, the first sentence of the letter he’d send to his squadron commander whenever this was over, when yelling broke out at both the front and rear of the bus. He threw out his prose and ripped the bag from his head. In front, one of his fellow prisoners had grabbed the guard by his rifle and was using it as a lever to pin the militiaman to the windshield. “Go! Go! Get out!” Similar words came simultaneously from the rear as the guard there was similarly immobilized. The transport’s emergency escape door was opened and moon-lit figures began filling its doorway, as if paratroopers jumping over Normandy. Hugo shuffled down the aisle, having lost accountability of his aircraft commander. He spilled out, falling the four feet to the asphalt and then running instantly, following two others into the forest. After a hundred yards all three of them stopped simultaneously. Hugo was familiar by sight with every flight engineer in the squadron so when he didn’t recognize either man, he knew their area of discipline. Neither man was from Spain. Zeal was a common trait of pararescuemen, however. “We need to go back and rescue our guys.” These were tough men, having survived training that had a greater than 50% wash-out rate. Hugo decided to mix first lieutenant authority with reason. “Easy there, airman. In a real situation we wouldn’t go back. We’d just get captured again.” Hugo liked the way his voice sounded. “Plus, it looks like you’re limping.” “Twisted it when I jumped from the bus. Those guys saved us back there.” “They did, and we’ll give them a paper Air Force Cross later. But I don’t think they’d want their sacrifice to be in vain.” Before he’d allow a retort, Hugo continued. “We’re not out of this. They’ll bring out the Special Air Service to track us down.” “Which way?” The other pararescueman asked, sold. Hugo pointed. “Towards that glow on the horizon. It’s the nearest village.” “What will we there? Hail a cab ?” “It could be that simple. How would you like to be in your own bed by mid-morning?” Hugo looked back in the direction of the short bus, now lit and visible through the trees. There was loud voices and a few flashlight beams poking their way. “Let’s get out of here.” Within the hour they’d found seven of the others. A quick accounting indicated that besides the two heroes his aircraft commander was among the missing. Hugo could imagine the man sitting there, bagged, frozen in time while the rest of them desperately sought air under their boots. The militiamen hadn’t given up. It was humiliation, something they were trying to pinch off before their majors and colonels found out. Hugo and his nocturnal wanderers were determined to deny them, melting into the dark forest whenever a vehicle approached. It was 0100 when they reached the village, its streets and home fronts dark and quiet, its occupants oblivious to their evading horde of Yanks. A phone booth was sought and found. “What’s the nearest airbase?” “Mildenhall.” A pause. “It’s not listed in the directory.” “I know the number for the base operator.” Hugo said, “Let me have it, and give me some change.” After a few moments he was connected to RAF Mildenhall’s base taxi dispatcher. “Hello, we need a ride.” The British gentleman on the other end of the line seemed eager. “Certainly sir, from where to where?” Hugo gave the man the name of the village and their destination, which was thirty five miles to the southeast as the crow flies, almost double that by road. “Blimey….” “It’s after one. You can’t be that busy.” “And I’d say you’re not far off with that.” “We’ll pay handsomely.” “Well, all right then.” “We’ll need two cars. Ten blokes. No baggage.” Hugo arrived back at his squadron building just as it was getting light. The first office inside the building’s main entrance was the operations center, currently occupied by one of his Academy classmates. “What are you doing here?” The man in the flight suit asked, eyes wide. By now everyone was aware of the misfortune thrust upon Hugo’s bachelor crew. “Looks like you’ve seen a ghost. I escaped with the others and I’m not going back.” Hugo soon learned the rest of the story. Their bus had been on its way to a prisoner of war facility, simulated, where they would’ve spent 2-3 days in the loving embrace of interrogation and non-debilitating torture. After that, the fun was to begin. They’d be taken to a large training area southwest of London where the Special Air Service – yes, that Special Air Service, the British equivalent to America’s Green Berets and Delta Force rolled into one unit – would hunt them until who knows when. No food, no knife – not even a penknife – and no go-bag. Hugo wrote his letter that morning, pointing out to the colonel that the married man had as much probability of evading behind enemy lines as the bachelor. Hugo wasn’t too surprised when the man agreed, which kept the ten of them from having to return to the exercise, a definite disappointment to those who’d spent weeks organizing it. Later that day they got their two heroes back, along with the aircraft commander. Hugo figured those 28 hours of adventure didn’t compare to an escape from Colditz Castle but there were lessons nonetheless. Namely, get the bag off your head as soon as possible, always have the pararescuemen on your side, and always, always check for married men on your flight crew.
  • First Lieutenant Maxwell Hugo fidgeted in the cramped briefing room. Around the room’s table was the rest of his crew, his aircraft commander, flight engineer, and three gunners who would depart with him in four hours to exfiltrate Air Force pararescuemen from an English forest. Hugo was uneasy, not due to the demands of the impending mission, as this one would be as straight forward as they came, but because of what had been whispered into his ear the previous day. “Bring a go-bag tomorrow.” The words belonged to someone he trusted. Analysis of all the angles uncovered a single, salient fact: the mission crew were all bachelors, unencumbered by a wife who would have to be called on a Friday evening and told her husband wouldn’t be returning that night. This led to the likely conclusion that he and his crew would be the objects of an escape and evasion exercise. Not only would someone be hunting them but since it was meant to be a secret, a fair amount of personal discomfort would be a likely by-product of the event. Still, it was conjecture until the moment three extraneous men entered their briefing room. Not three random men but those possessing the exact qualifications for the basic crew of an H-53 helicopter. You bastards, thought Hugo. The senior ranking interloper was not only a major but a member of the unit’s standardization & evaluation cadre, which meant he could justify hopping on any mission at any time. A good cover, except that the presence of his two companions gave away his true intentions. “We’re going to tag along tonight, just observing.” Hugo had informed his aircraft commander of the previous day's whisper yet the man said nothing to the major’s pronouncement. Instead the mission leader stood and began his dissection of the night’s scheduled events: a flight to a forest clearing we knew as Coy Drop Zone where we would pick up our eight pararescuemen, fly them back to the airbase, then spend the rest of the evening practicing instrument approaches in the local area. Up at six, down at ten p.m. Almost routine. At the end it was the three visitors’ turn to say nothing. Four hours later the pre-flight inspections were complete and the helicopter run up to full operating temperature on its first try, no small feat given the H-53 was a powerful assembly of two turboshaft engines, five transmissions, three hydraulic systems, and miles of twenty year-old wiring. At departure Hugo had a map in his left hand, his finger quickly oriented in the day’s dying light. He’d navigated to Coy many times but even with dead reckoning information neatly tabulated, this part of England was so flat it’d be easy to miss their destination among the growing shadows below. En route Hugo interspersed his navigational calculations with thoughts of the three extraneous men standing behind him in the helicopter’s cabin. I bet they’re smiling, he thought. Twenty-five minutes later Hugo found Coy, his aircraft commander having never relinquished the flight controls. “Coy DZ dead ahead.” “Before landing check,” voiced the aircraft commander. The landing itself was uneventful, though it was nearly dark. The aircraft commander plopped their beast seventy-five yards from Coy’s tree line, deciding to leave the rotor rpm at flying speed because, well, they didn’t expect to be on the ground long. The H-53 had barely settled its six tires in the scrub when the intercom squealed. “Right door. I’ve got people moving our way.” This was wholly expected. Hugo had to look across the cockpit and past his aircraft commander to make them out. The men weren’t running but weren’t walking either, something in between. No doubt they were looking for a night in their own beds after a week in the field. A second later there was another voice in their ears. “Tail here. I’ve got vehicles moving towards us at a high rate of speed.” This was wholly unexpected. “Take off. In a real situation we’d leave and support from the air.” Hugo had vomited the words into his mouthpiece, aiming them squarely at his aircraft commander. He didn’t think they would make any difference, but at least there’d be resistance. The aircraft commander said nothing, did nothing. Then Hugo became aware of a new being in the small cockpit. Or at least the head of one. The major had poked his into their space. “You’ve just had your tail rotor blown off, simulated. Normal shutdown.” Hugo heard the helicopter moan and groan as it was started anew, then was gone in a roar. He didn’t see any of it because he was face down on the ground, wetness seeping to his chest, thighs, and forearms. The rest of his crew were around him, similarly positioned, including the pararescuemen they’d come to save. Everything of value had been taken from them. Equipment. Tools. Weapons. And his go-bag. Hugo quickly learned their captors weren’t Cold War Soviets, Czechs, or even Poles. They were British, members of the local militia fulfilling their weekend commitments. It was completely dark now. With his helicopter’s gnash receding into the distance, Hugo was marched with the others to a nearby scrap of concrete and ordered to the ground again. He thought they were in a rough line though it was difficult to say with certainty. Now it was sure there was an uncomfortable weekend ahead. No wonder only bachelors had been picked. “You can go (eff) yourself, mate.” The last word had come out sarcastically, as if the airman mouthing it was trying to ridicule a whole language. Hugo was unfamiliar with the voice, learning later it’d come from a pararescueman on temporary loan from the squadron’s Zaragoza detachment. Hugo learned much more quickly that the man was a zealous sort. “Yeah, I’m talking to you, limey.” The militiamen were near but not too near, unseen in the darkness. One of them broke after the fifth horrid pronouncement from the man on loan from Spain. “Shut up, Yank, or I’ll shut you up.” The retort was all the wedge the pararescueman needed. Amid a staccato of expletives, the man yelled back, “You (hmmm) come near me and I’ll (hmmm) cut you. I’ll stab you in the (hmmm) heart.” The militiaman took the bait, much to his later regret, emerging from the black to challenge his ugly Yank with pugilistic intent, to land a blow with a fist or even the butt of his Fabrique Nationale FAL rifle. Hugo heard the militiaman’s boots resonate on the concrete, then stop. After a sound of struggle, Hugo heard a scream of such ferocity that he thought it would bring the local constable. Hugo would learn that the man from Zaragoza had hidden a pen knife, now using it to stab the poor militiaman through the palm of his hand. Multiple men emerged from the darkness to save their countryman and to manhandle the American to his knees. They took wire and bound his wrists to his ankles behind his back, an arrangement that quickly proved insufficient. With his own scream and grunt, the pararescueman threw his body forward to break the wire, in the process inflicting a nasty wound to his forehead. The militiamen then reinstalled the wire, adding a second length wrapped around the American’s neck, all in an attempt to further constrain, punish, and to gag the awful proclamations about their mothers, the Queen, and the IRA’s continued effectiveness against the British military. Part II to come: Mass Escape
  • Photo from check-six.com Dan Cooper is the name used by the man who hijacked a flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington in November, 1971 (the press erroneously reported his name as DB Cooper and this is how the culture now knows him). It is the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history. 1971 was a time when you could walk right up to the jetway to greet arriving friends and relatives, could skip a flight without monetary penalty, get a free meal in coach, and sit in a decently sized airline seat. You also weren't required to present identification to purchase said seat, which means that given the nefarious events that followed, Cooper was almost certainly not the hijacker's real name. Once airborne, Cooper quietly communicating his intent to a flight attendant, backed by a brief visual inspection of his briefcase's contents, road flares wired to look like dynamite. He demanded that once the aircraft landed in Seattle he be given $200,000 (a not insignificant amount in 1971) and four parachutes. When authorities presented these after landing, Cooper allowed the passengers to deplane, leaving only the flight crew. Taking off again, he instructed that he be flown to Mexico. He didn't plan to reach his destination. As the aircraft approached Portland's airspace to the south, he commanded the pilots to descend the aircraft to 10,000 feet and reduce its speed to just above stall. Dismissing the attendants to the front of the cabin, Cooper lowered the Boeing 727's unique rear airstair door and jumped into the night with the money strapped to him by way of two lengths of parachute cord (a completely insufficient arrangement given what he was to encounter). It was 8:14 P.M. on November 24, 1971. Dan Cooper did not survive the jump. For one, he was an inexperienced skydiver. The four parachutes given to him consisted of two "main" chutes worn like a backpack and two "reserve" chutes designed to clip to the main's harness at the wearer's belly. The main chute he chose had a uniquely placed rip cord that was not only difficult to find on the harness but also to manipulate (the chute was the property of an experienced jumpmaster concerned with premature deployment inside the confines of an aircraft). Second, one of the two reserve chutes was marked prominently as a training chute, which meant it was used solely in the classroom. As a parachute needs to be exercised regularly to ensure its reliable operation, only a rank novice would have placed his life in the hands of such a device. This is the one he chose to use. Cooper's survival probability was further reduced by the environment into which he jumped. While the recorded air temperature at the time was -7C/19F, the aircraft was flying through the air at 165 knots, significantly higher than the stall speed Cooper had instructed. The resulting wind chill meant that the air Cooper actually encountered was -26C/-15F in temperature. Also, the violent slipstream almost certainly separated him from his loot, evidenced by the discovery of some of his marked bills in a river bank in 1980. The frigid temperature wasn't fatal by itself, as shown by the thousands of successful winter night jumps made by Royal Air Force aircrews during WW2. Unlike those fighting men however, Cooper jumped wearing decidedly non-winter attire. He left his aircraft wearing loafers, a suit, and a trench coat (some accounts say a windbreaker). He was not seen with gloves so that cold air combined with the slipstream likely robbed him of the fine motor skills and limb controllability required to manipulate the funky ripcord of his main chute or that of his reserve, which was filled with stiff nylon. If he somehow did deploy one of his chutes, further risk came if he landed in one of the many bodies of water dotting that part of the country. Even the most experienced parachutist would find a water landing near lethal, especially at night and if he or she were already hypothermic. Dan Cooper didn't survive. Evidence of this is still out there (though his mortal remains have by now been scattered by wildlife and natural events). Given his choice of egress from criminal pursuit, combined with his lack of training and suitable attire, there can be little doubt that he died that November night. Only our desire to chase mysteries and, for some, prop up an underdog keeps the mystery of DB Cooper alive.