A new radar system is allowing the military’s unmanned MQ-9 Reaper attack drones to fly for the first time in and out of Syracuse Hancock International Airport without an escort from piloted chase planes.
It’s the first time that military drones have flown unescorted from a commercial airport in the United States.
The military’s newly installed ground-based “detect and avoid” radar allows Reapers from the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing to safely and more effectively fly training missions from Syracuse, guard officials said.
“This radar system enhances the safety of the wing’s MQ-9 aircraft and helps prevent collisions with commercial air traffic,” Air National Guard Col. Michael Smith, 174th Attack Wing commander, said.
The system is the first of its kind for the military’s operations of Reapers and is a potential template for other commercial airports or military installations using remotely piloted aircraft, Smith said.
Reapers, the Air Force’s primary unmanned attack aircraft, have been flying out of Syracuse daily since December 2015, when they became the first unmanned aircraft in the nation to launch from a commercial airport.
However, for safety purposes, the Federal Aviation Administration has until now required them to be followed by a manned plane while flying up to and from 18,000 feet altitude to warn the Reapers’ operators back at the airport of nearby aircraft on a potential collision course with the drones.
The Reapers and their escorts from the Civil Air Patrol have been a common daily sight at they travel between Syracuse and the air space over Lake Ontario, where the drones have been free to conduct training missions — usually for up to 12 hours at a time — without escort.
The restrictions, however, inhibited aircrew training and the wing’s flexibility to respond with aircraft quickly during federal or state missions, the guard said.
Only two Civil Air Patrol planes were available to follow the Reapers, but the air guard operates three Reapers from the airport daily. That meant that the chase planes had to escort two Reapers to Lake Ontario, then at least one would have to return to Syracuse to escort the third Reaper, said Lt. Col. Aaron Brown, director of operations for the 108th Attack Squadron of the 174th Attack Wing.
In addition, during cloudy weather, the Reapers could not fly because the chase plane pilots would not always be able to keep an eye on them and the air space around them, Brown said. Training missions sometimes had to be cut short so the Reapers could meet up with the chase planes for their return trip before clouds rolled in, he said.
An MQ-9 Reaper is parked in a hangar at the Air National Guard 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Field in Syracuse. (David Lassman | syracuse.com)
Developed by Cicero-based SRC Inc., the new radar electronically scans the skies around the airport and can very accurately detect all aircraft — even hard-to-see drones and ultralights. It also can determine an aircraft’s altitude even if its transponder is not working, something FAA radars cannot do, Brown said.
In addition, the air guard uses existing FAA radars, which have a longer range than LSTAR, to complement the new radar, Brown said.
Combined, the system can detect other aircraft at much greater distances than chase plane pilots looking out their cockpits can, greatly increasing the safety factor, according to the guard.
Brown said the system even advises Reaper pilots on the best maneuvers to avoid a potential collision.
In addition to operating Reapers on training missions for 4,000 hours each year to qualify pilots and sensor operators, the 174th Attack Wing trains all Reaper maintenance technicians for the Air Force, Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve. It also deploys members overseas to support Reaper operations and other Air Force missions.
The wing is based at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, which is located on the south side of the airport grounds and utilizes the airport’s runways. The wing ended 62 years of manned fighter operations at the base in 2010, when it traded in its F-16s fighter jets for Reapers.
The successor to the MQ-1 Predator, Reapers can loiter in the air for long periods and are capable of strike, coordination and reconnaissance missions.
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