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Desert Hawk enhances security


Release Date: 7/30/2003

by Jeanne Grimes Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Public Affairs

7/30/2003 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFPN) -- It launches with a bungee cord and looks like it is made of plastic foam.

But three deployed airmen from the 72nd Security Forces Squadron swear by their "Desert Hawk" and the technology behind it.

The portable unmanned aerial vehicle is an "eye in the sky," seeing all and transmitting real-time images back to its security-forces pilots who are responsible for the safety of aircraft taking off and landing at the air base, according to Master Sgt. Randy Morningstar.

"It's a force multiplier," said Morningstar, who is certified by U.S. Air Forces Central Command to fly the Force Protection Airborne Surveillance System. Others certified include Tech. Sgt. Jim Mogren and Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Staub.

All are serving with the 380th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at a forward-deployed location supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

"I've been flying it since January," said Morningstar, who manages the program at his location. "(CENTAF officials) came out with a field training team and trained us here, and we got permission from our host nation to fly."

A two-week course taught the deployed airmen mission planning, how to plot coordinates and how to use Global Positioning System navigation to plot "where you want the (unmanned aerial vehicle) to go," he said. "It's very similar to the Global Hawk (UAV) and how it navigates. You set up your mission to cover certain areas that you have interest in," Morningstar said.

Like an obedient airman, Desert Hawk will "go and do whatever you tell it to," he said.

"If you see something (of interest) when it's up in the air, you can send a command to the (UAV) and have it do a tight orbit over top of it so the camera is centered over whatever you see," he said.

The Desert Hawk's main objective is to cover the surface-to-air missile "footprint."

"There may be some guy out there with a ground-launch missile on his shoulder that he could be shooting at one of our aircraft when it takes off or lands," Mogren said. "We're able to cover that area with our (UAV); so if we see something, we can dispatch a patrol to go get them."

Desert Hawk's cameras chronicle every flight on a mini digital-tape recorder, even as the pilot, who can be about three miles away, watches real-time images on a laptop computer. The operator also has the option of taking computer "snapshots."

None of the suspicious sightings to date have panned out, Morningstar said, nor has the Desert Hawk drawn undue attention.

"It's very, very small and very hard to see," Staub said. "It's only 52 inches wide and 32 inches long. It's a little bitty thing . made out of what they call durable foam. Think Tupperware."

Desert Hawk cruises 40 to 60 mph at altitudes up to 500 feet. Higher flying is not practical since that might put the 7-pound-plus UAV into the path of manned a aircraft.

"We want to be a help to the aircraft out there. We don't want to be in their way," Morningstar said. "Before we launch, we always coordinate with our control tower. They know where we're going to fly, what our altitudes are and what our mission box is. We keep in radio contact, plus cell phone contact, at all times so if there's ever an issue, we can divert the (UAV) immediately.

"And worst case scenario, we can take control of the (UAV) and make it dive straight into the ground, sacrificing our airframe (to avoid other aircraft)."

An agreement between the Air Force and the host nation stipulates that every Desert Hawk mission be pre-approved, officials said.

"Right before we launch, we remind them 'We're going to be here,' let them know what we're going to do ,and then we're in contact with them on the radio while the (UAV is) in the air, and we tell them immediately when we land," Staub said.

Each Desert Hawk kit comes with six airframes, a ground control station and remote video terminal. The squadron carries out multiple Desert Hawk missions every day, although only one of the airframes can be aloft at any time. Desert Hawk flies and sees equally well at night, since its video payload can be changed out. Options include white hot or black hot infrared, a low-light camera and three cameras suitable for daylight conditions.

"Anytime there's an aircraft that warrants that extra measure of protection, we'll go out," Morningstar said. "We can be set up in 10 minutes to launch, and we've actually had to do that where an aircraft was spotlighted or something caused it to drop its countermeasures."

The launching process is as low-tech as the (UAV's) payload is high-tech.

A bungee cord is attached to the airframe, which is held by the operator. The co-pilot "walks the bungee cord out" until it reaches maximum extension -- about 300 feet.

"You can feel the tug; you know when it's as far as it'll go," Mogren said.

When the tension on the cord is just right, and operator and co-pilot say they are ready, they count down, and then the operator "just lets it slide off his hands," Morningstar said.

"It just slides forward and starts zooming," he said. "It goes almost straight up once it launches. It looks pretty strange the first time you see it. And (if you are) the person at the other end, you (have) a 60 to 70 mile an hour bungee cord coming right at you."

But what appears a danger for that person is actually an optical illusion because the airframe's assent also lifts up the bungee cord, and the momentum carries it past the person on the ground.

"It's . a pretty ingenious system," Morningstar said.

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