RG-8A Condor Schweizer SA2-37B
The Schweizer RG-8A Condor SA2-37B has been point designed to meet unique requirements for a covert day/night Surveillance Platform. The Schweizer SA2-37B aircraft is engineered to perform covert surveillance missions in a manner not possible with any other aircraft. Its sophisticated suite of FLIR, EO, and Electronic Sensors enables activities on the land or sea to be detected and monitored without detection from below. The combination of its low acoustic signature, large payload capacity, long range and endurance, and low operating costs make the SA2-37B exceptionally effective.
The RG-8A plane has been used for years in secret operations and in U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) anti-drug operations. According to some reports at least eight of the RG-8A planes exist - three owned by the US Coast Guard, three by CIA, and one each by Colombia and Mexico. At least two RG-8A Condors are in use by the US Coast Guard. At least one Condor was leased to CIA as drone control and data relay aircraft for the General Atomics Gnat 750 Tier 1 surveillance drone. The US Army may have additional RG-8A aircraft. One of the two original GRISLY HUNTER RG-8A aircraft crashed at Ft. Huachuca, AZ killing its crew of two.
The Peruvian government's 22 April 1997 raid against rebel commandos holding 72 hostages in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima was reportedly carried out with the help of U.S. technology. The raid left 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) dead, along with one hostage and at least two military officers. Aviation Week and Space Technology reported on 05 May 1997 that an RG-8A plane operated by CIA used a forward-looking infrared camera to monitor the movements of the rebels and the hostages within the residence at night. The plane was reportedly equipped with high resolution television cameras and multispectral sensors that detected anti-personnel mines and explosive traps set by the rebels.
The SA2-37B has outstanding range/endurance performance. On a maximum endurance mission, it can operate for up to twelve hours. Alternatively, it can fly a 200 nmi radius mission and still loiter on station for up to seven hours. With its 24,000 foot service ceiling, it can also perform missions requiring higher altitudes.
The SA2-37B is designed to carry up to 510 pounds (231 kg) of sensors and related payload equipment in its 70 cubic foot fuselage payload bay. A modular payload system enhances integration of the sensors and provides the capability to quickly change mission payloads
Careful matching of the aerodynamic design with the propeller, governor, engine, and mufflers, enables the SA2-37B to operate with engine RPMs between 1,100 to 1,300 during the quiet mission mode. Because the aircraft requires only about 65 horsepower (the Lycoming T10-540 engine is rated at 250 horsepower) to maintain altitude in the quiet mode, it is, under most circumstances, undetectable by an uncued observer when at an altitude of 2,000 feet (610 m) above the ground and 600 feet (183 m) above the water.
Mission versatility is designed into the SA2-37B. Its palletized payload system provides flexibility. Some of the roles performed by the SA2-37B surveillance platform include: counter-drug detection and monitoring, counter-terrorism surveillance, maritime patrol, search and rescue, environmental protection, spectrum monitoring/direction finding of communication frequencies, and high altitude relay.
The Schweizer SA2-37B's value has been proven by more than twelve years of operation with government customers in the United States and around the world. For these users, the SA2-37B fulfills critical mission needs for an airborne platform that can covertly perform day/night surveillance missions in a cost effective manner.
Congressional staffers and members of concerned committees included provision in Plan Colombia funding for the procurement, outfitting and deployment of five Schweizer SA 2-37B low noise profile surveillance aircraft in the aid package. These aircraft were known by Congressional personnel to be highly successful in conducting airborne surveillance operations both day and night in hot spots all over the world without alerting those on the ground to the fact that they were being observed and their every movement recorded on FLIR and video imagery. In fact, these aircraft had proven their worth both when operated by elements of the U.S. Government and by the Colombian Air Force itself, who had purchased one of the aircraft with their own funds in 1998.
The concept of inclusion of Schweizer SA 2-37B aircraft in Plan Colombia was embraced by State Department International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and Department of Defense Office of Drug Enforcement Policy and Support (DEP&S) and undertaken as a joint project under the acronym "LANAS" for Low Acoustic Noise Signature Airborne Surveillance. Much of the aircraft procurement was done through State INL with active participation, particularly in the payload, training and support arena, by the DOD Counterdrug Technology Development Program Office [CDTDPO] Counterdrug Division at Dahlgren, which became the action arm for DEP&S. CDTDPO personnel took an early and decisive role in helping select the payloads and communications equipment on the aircraft, ultimately settling on FLIR and high resolution TV equipment, which had been recently developed by a U.S. manufacturer, and a basic COMINT/DF system specifically designed to help cue the aircraft to communication sites used by narco-traffickers, so the FLIR and night vision systems could be brought into play. Based on experience gained from the Colombian Air Force (FAC) use of their own aircraft, it was determined that given the high terrain and high density altitudes encountered in Colombia, that effectiveness of the LANAS platform would be enhanced by increasing the wingspan from 67 to 74 feet, enabling the aircraft to operate at lower power settings than normally would be required to maintain altitude in this rarified atmosphere. The best low noise signature for LANAS aircraft is directly proportionate to a very low RPM setting on the propeller control (i.e., circa 1,100-1,200 RPMs v. 2,400-2,500 RPMs normally used on piston aircraft in a cruise configuration). The very efficient, long tapered wings and low drag fuselage of the LANAS aircraft are based on glider technology, the initial product upon which Schweizer Aircraft Corporation was founded. This concept allows the aircraft to stay aloft for extended periods of time (up to 10 or 11 hours) when operating in the quiet mode.
As the LANAS procurement progressed, CDTDPO assumed the responsibility for delivery of the aircraft, training of pilots, sensor operators and maintenance personnel, as well as provision of much of the spares and overhaul of major aircraft components. There had been some early discussion between DoD and State regarding allocation of the aircraft. State wished to give two of the airplanes to the Colombian National Policy (CNP), while the MILGRP and SOUTHCOM pushed for giving all five of the new aircraft to the FAC. Ultimately, the FAC did receive all the aircraft. Their own Schweizer SA 2-37A was rolled into the support package in a seamless manner. The training and maintenance support contracts were awarded to Lockheed-Martin Corporation as prime under the Rapid Response to Critical Requirements contracting mechanism. Lockheed's subcontractor, Integrated AeroSystems, Inc. (IAS), provided ferry pilots, instructor pilots, sensor operator training, and contracted in Colombia for maintenance support at the main base in Apiay, as well as aircraft component overhaul support at Guaymaral airport near Bogota.
Aircraft deliveries began in the last quarter of 2001, with the final aircraft being delivered in February 2003. During this entire time, on-site instructors were training FAC personnel in the arcane skills needed to fly tailwheel aircraft, in instrument and night flying techniques, and in the conduct of non-alerting surveillance missions. At the same time, sensor operator personnel received training in the operation of FLIR/HRTV and COMINT/DF collection systems. Locally contracted maintenance personnel were brought in as advisors to coach FAC technicians in proper care and maintenance of this somewhat unique turbo-charged piston aircraft. The LANAS platform presented a very different challenge to the FAC technicians, as most of their experience was on turbo-jet and turbo-prop aircraft. There were some frustrations in the training process. The monsoon weather was a bit daunting to the relatively inexperienced FAC pilots assigned to the project and caused many training flights to be delayed. Additionally, the FAC were sometimes unable to release LANAS aircraft for training missions due to the heavy press of operational requirements and demand for the unique collection intelligence product provided by these aircraft. Of course, U.S. instructor personnel were not authorized to participate in any operational missions. The local maintenance support and overhaul company proved to be wonderfully capable and quickly became dedicated to the mission. Some early difficulties with instructor pilots were solved when IAS was able to hire two Hispanic U.S. pilots with significant relevant experience in other programs. This training and support activity, while limited in cost and numbers of personnel involved, progressed at a notably successful pace through the end of December2002 when the scope was reduced by approximately fifty percent due to budgetary constraints. Training and support was scheduled to terminate at the end of April 2003, when the FAC began to carry the entire program on their own.
The LANAS program has been effective, both in providing significant tactical and strategic intelligence to the armed forces of Colombia, and for fostering cooperation between the various Colombian services engaged in a drug war. At Apiay, over 60 percent of the missions have been flown in support of Colombian Army elements and a similarly high percentage of missions flown in Cali are in support of the CNP element there. The aircraft has provided extremely valuable actionable intelligence on the location of drug laboratories, as well as narco-guerilla logistics facilities and transportation networks. In one notable event, a huge depot used for storage of precursor chemicals was located by the LANAS aircraft. A subsequent FAC attack on the area resulted in huge secondary explosions as these highly volatile chemicals were ignited. The LANAS ability to locate drug labs without alerting those on the ground has resulted in destruction of those labs and capture of significant amounts of narcotics. Frequently, the operators of these labs were surprised at their work and either captured or killed.
LANAS has become a prime example of how a dedicated team of U.S. Government personnel, working with committed and involved contractors and with the full participation of host Nation elements, can bring forth a successful program in a cost effective manner. Lessons learned in this program can be applied in future joint participation activities to mutual benefit of all involved.
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