Marine squadron expanding its UAV coverage

13 Jun 2003 | Army Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Buzzing sounds ripple through the morning silence June 13 as Marines hurry back and forth on the dirt airstrip near the Euphrates River.

Suddenly, the quiet is shattered by a terrific blast as the Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle rockets into the air and quickly out of site.

Though this UAV, which is one of five operated by Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron-2 based at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is just getting its first wind at Camp Babylon.

Maj. John A. Price, the officer in charge of VMU-2, said the squadron moved its fleet from Al Kut to be closer to the First Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Babylon.

"We moved so we could range more to the west so we could give a wider coverage band to (First Marine Division) and MEF," he said.

As hostile activity still remains in and around Baghdad, the drones, which employ camera surveillance, still remain important. However, the planes aren't as heavily engaged as they were during the war, when they logged a total of 800 hours of airtime.

"During the war we found numerous artillery pieces and tanks," Pryce said.

To accommodate the UAV operation at Camp Babylon, a 960-foot dirt strip was built along one bank of the river. The airstrip is the first built specifically for the UAV squadron.

"We worked out of the sides of roads during the war," said Pryce, resident of Rutland, Mass., as he waited for the Pioneer UAV to return from its four-hour flight. "This is our airfield. The Seabees did a phenomenal job."

Navy Lt. Mark Dietrich is an operations officer for Task Force Charlie, a joint force of Naval and Marine engineers responsible for major construction projects in Iraq including roads and runways. Dietrich said it took Seabees three days to level the strip, including the removal of seven trees.

Some Marines liken the airstrip to "Cactus" Field, a makeshift airfield that proved instrumental during the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II. Not surprisingly, the Guadalcanal airfield was a joint Marines-Seabees project also.

While airfield construction techniques haven't changed drastically in the last sixty years, aviation technology, especially involving UAVs, has made great leaps.

Once an external pilot launches the UAV, the ground control station can control the drone as it flies at altitudes of 10,000 to 15,000 feet.

Sophisticated cameras that operate day or night provide members of the ground control station images of enemy movements and potential targets. The intelligence is passed on to the appropriate section. Many times fire coordinates are relayed from the station as well.

The fixed-wing drone, which has a wingspan of 17 feet and weighs about 450 pounds, proved their worth many times over during the war, Pryce said.

"We stayed in direct support of division and moved whenever they moved," Pryce said.

Now, the squadron is flying one four-hour sortie per day.

Capt. L. Dean Bodily, an air traffic controller with the squadron, said as the summer heats up, the heat makes landings more unpredictable.

"There is more lift here because it's so hot," he said.

On cue, the drone came in for a landing, bounced over the arresting wire strung across the runway to stop it and came skidding to a halt.

"We have a couple of soft spots," said Dietrich, looking at the new airstrip. "We'll have a crew back out here."