By Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kenneth Pease, Hunter Army Airfield, GeorgiaSeptember 13, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Sept. 13, 2017) - In 2004, I was a sergeant in the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment at what was then Fort Lewis, Washington. To prepare for our upcoming deployment to Iraq, our squadron commander thought it would be a good idea to conduct a border patrol mission. Our squadron was comprised of three cavalry scout troops and one military intelligence troop. The plan for the unmanned aircraft systems platoon was to conduct flight operations along the border between the United States and Mexico.
At the time, we did not have an approved airworthiness release for our Shadow UAS to fly in national airspace. The battalion submitted a request for a Certificate of Authorization six months prior, just as we'd been instructed to do. We railroaded all our equipment and transported it to a staging area at Fort Bliss, Texas. We went to the airfield to set up everything, only to find out our COA wasn't approved. The rest of the squadron conducted their operations as scheduled. Although our Shadows represented a very valuable asset, we weren't allowed to conduct missions.
Now we were at Fort Bliss unable to perform our operations. The platoon sergeant, platoon leader and I came up with a training plan for the following 30 days. We planned to go to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and conduct training flights to bring everyone up to Readiness Level 1. In each training area, we had to set up radio frequencies and coordinate with the tower and range control on the procedures we would follow. Part of the coordination process involved reviewing the local notice to airmen (notices containing time-critical aviation information for the airspace being used) that could affect our UAS training. Using an FM radio, every morning we would call range control for any updates to the NOTAMs - but there never were any. We found that a bit odd but continued conducting our operations.
One afternoon, we experienced some problems with one of our Shadows. We hadn't seen anything to be concerned about during the preflight checks, but as soon as it launched, it lost GPS. We had no idea where the Shadow was. Our only clue was to look at the feed from the camera and try to figure the Shadow's location by observing the roads below. The coordinates the Shadow was sending were way off and the aircraft appeared to be bouncing all over the map and flying in circles.
I was the standardization operator for our platoon and had just finished instructing a Soldier on another aircraft. As soon as the GPS failure occurred, the other instructor operator called me over. There was an emergency procedure for this problem, but we'd never really practiced it. After all, we never thought we'd lose our GPS.
Getting the aircraft back on the ground safely was now a major challenge. The Shadow uses a tactical automated landing system, so you need to have a direct line of sight to the aircraft - something which is a bit hard when you don't know where the aircraft is. During normal approaches, we acquire the aircraft at 1,000 feet, but we knew we weren't going to be doing that on this landing. Fortunately, when the Shadow descended to 500 feet, it acquired the normal glide slope and we were able to land it safely and undamaged. Although we spent hours troubleshooting the aircraft, we could not reproduce the problem. We decided to just swap the GPS antenna and call it good to go.
The following day, we launched the same aircraft and, as you might guess, ran into the same problem with the GPS. We safely landed the Shadow and got the next aircraft ready to fly. We launched it and the same thing happened again. Once that occurred, we realized this issue was not isolated to a single aircraft. We were at White Sands Missile Range and, after all, who really knows what all is going on out there?
We contacted range control again to report that our GPS systems kept going down. The woman at range control said, "Yeah, I see in the NOTAMs that they are jamming GPS all week from 1200 to 1600 hours." After hearing that, the platoon sergeant and I went to range control to talk about this problem, explaining how we almost lost three aircraft. The woman said, "I had no idea that it would affect you. I didn't know your aircraft had GPS."
This experience taught us a lesson. It is vital that pilots and UAS operators personally review the NOTAMs daily. You can't count on others to alert you to any dangers in the NOTAMs. As it turned out, we were the first Shadow platoon to fly from this location. The woman at range control thought the Shadow flew like a normal remote control plane with a flight control box. Her not understanding the Shadow's requirement for GPS navigation and our failing to personally review the NOTAMs daily almost cost the Army millions of dollars.
The bottom line is that when it comes to aviation safety, the buck always stops with you. Trying to pass the buck by making assumptions or taking shortcuts is the quickest route I know to a smoking hole in the ground. And that is not where you want to be at the end of a mission.
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