Avalon 2015 crowds are being treated to seeing a real, live, operational Global Hawk in the flesh.
But what’s involved in flying the world’s largest UAV halfway across the Pacific?
“A lot,” answers Major Devon Fitts, chief planner for UAVs with the USAF’s PACAF in Hawaii. Following an official request, planning for Global Hawk’s debut appearance down under began last August. Once funding and aircraft availability issues had been addressed, deployment planning could commence in earnest.
He explains: “We had to ask ‘Do we have satellite communications? Are we going to bring a launch and recovery element (LRE), which is one of the control shelters that has a line of sight link to the aircraft? And do we bring the other ground element, the mission control element (MCE), which is over in the US at Grand Forks AFB or Beale AFB?
“Ultimately, we decided it wasn’t feasible to bring an LRE down here. Then we ask if we have the MCE capacity to control the aircraft from beyond the line of sight. That’s a question of satellite communications, and to control the aircraft from CONUS, we had to look at what current satellites we had and whether they could support us this far south.
“We had to make a lot of the smaller coordination happen, things like fuel, start carts, aircraft ground equipment. Whenever you talk about moving a Global Hawk, you have to talk about moving maintenance personnel and the right footprint of people.”
After confirmation of an airshow appearance was received, Maj Fitts’s team then dispatched personnel to Avalon to do a survey of the airport airfield and take GPS way points for taxying, landing and take off. These were then relayed to mission planners in Beale AFB, northern California.
“That’s one of the best things, that this is an active civil airport,” Maj Fitts notes.
“It’s the first time Global Hawk has been able to land at a fully civilian airfield, so there was a lot of co-ordination behind the scenes to make that happen. Of course, Global Hawk is subject to all of the air traffic regulations, just like any other aircraft, and we have to find a way to work within current laws.
“So we started a conversation with Airservices Australia and came to an agreement on how we were going to operate with regards to the the routing we’d take and what our approach would look like.
“I took that back to Air Combat Command’s 69th Recon Group and we started talking about making the mission fit with what Airservices wanted to do. Once we got that sorted out, we brought in CASA and also the RAAF to put on paper a plan that made everybody comfortable.
“We flew air routes down here, then descended and landed in the restricted area set up for the airshow using IFR rules, just as any other aircraft would.”
Asked what he hoped Avalon crowds would get from seeing a fully operational Global Hawk up close, Maj Fitts responded: “In the States, people are concerned about unmanned aircraft flying around – and it’s a legitimate concern. Not enough info is out there.
“So this is a really good opportunity for people to see that unmanned flight is possible, it’s safe. We did it. And it didn’t really take anything special. We can operate within the way the laws are currently written and still operate safely.”