No pilot, no problems

CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle
ScanEagle instructor Mike Wood steps over the launch cords as he prepares the ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle for launch Thursday at the Melrose Bombing Range.

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

In descent, the graceful, little plane — No. 05-134 — spirals in the sky, flickering in and out of sight in the sun. No pilot guides elusive No. 05-134, but the unmanned aerial vehicle glides obediently to the end of its pre-programmed flight.

The plane is snagged out of the sky when a hook on its wing is caught by a suspended rope — all part of the detailed design that has made the Boeing ScanEagle a cherished tool in the fight on terror.

“This is the cutting edge of technology. We can send this vehicle up and collect data and we don’t have to put a pilot or a crew in risk.

“You shoot at it and it doesn’t flinch,” Boeing Training Support Center Deputy Director Bob Futoran said.
Since July, Curry County has been a home for the ScanEagle.

Civilians and military students are trained to operate and maintain the unmanned aerial vehicles at Clovis Community College. More than 20 miles away, they practice using them at Melrose Bombing Range.

So far, 20 students have graduated from the Boeing ScanEagle program at CCC, according to Futoran. Currently, six new students are enrolled in the program, Futoran said.

Jakan Elam is one of the program’s nine instructors. For Elam, who compares the ScanEagle to a sophisticated model airplane, his job is also his hobby.

“I can’t believe they pay me to play with these things,” said Elam, as winds whipped through the range and students tinkered with No. 05-134.

To cart the 40-pound plane around the range, the students casually hoist it over their shoulders.

Once its wings are screwed from its body and tucked to its side, No. 05-134 is so compact it can fit in the bed of a pick-up truck (or the inside of a Humvee). Made from a carbon-fiber composite, the ScanEagle is stronger than steel, according to program site manager John Sides.

Still, little nicks cover No. 05-134 and patches of glue mar its side. But these scars are just cosmetic.

ScanEagles can endure about 250 flight hours before they need to be retired or repaired, Sides said. Once they reach 1,500 feet, they are generally safe from enemies, “literally invisible,” according to Sides.

All this, and more, make the ScanEagle prized in the battlefield, according to Futoran. The unmanned aerial vehicles are equipped with cameras that can track stationary and moving targets.

“This system is saving lives (in Iraq) and saving lives at a phenomenal rate,” said Futoran, a retired Air Force pilot.

Concealed thousands of feet in the air, the eye of the camera can zoom to the ground so soldiers can monitor terrain.

But the ScanEagle has lots of potential beyond the military, Futoran said.

In northern Canada, the robotic planes are being programmed to search for gold and silver, Futoran said. They also help commercial fishing fleets spot tuna. And the government wants to employ unmanned vehicles to protect the border.

CCC Assistant to the President Tom Drake said the arrival of the ScanEagle in Clovis brings many rewards. In exchange for use of college facilities, Boeing students pay tuition. People from as far as Australia have been drawn to Clovis to attend the program and the local economy benefits, Drake said.

The Boeing/CCC contract is up for renewal in July 2007, but their partnership has no indications of fizzling.

Boeing has had informal discussions about use of the ScanEagle with Cannon Air Force Base’s incoming tenants, Air Force Special Operations, according to Futoran. And the program has a comfy niche at CCC and the range.

“(Boeing) wants this to be their premier program for UAVs. The opportunity is there,” Drake said.

“I think this will be a fairly long-term deal,” he said.