Why I Hated Being A Drone Pilot in Afghanistan


 

By Jay Kirell

 

I’d like to introduce you to my friend T….

 

T is short for T-Hawk, (or Tarantula Hawk), a ducted fan, VTOL micro UAV developed by noted US defense contractor, Honeywell. Military units from a host of NATO countries use it, and in 2010 it was first given to troops in Afghanistan.

It’s about the size of a footstool, came equipped with night vision mode, and made my life a living hell during my deployment.

My relationship with the T-Hawk started in October of 2010.  My platoon had just returned from responding to an IED attack that left one of our attached scout-snipers a triple amputee.  Back at the outpost, still recovering from the shock of that incident, my platoon sergeant pulled me aside:

 

PS: “Kirell, pack a bag.”

ME: “Why, Sergeant?”

PS: “You’re leaving to go to T-Hawk school.”

ME: “What’s that, Sergeant?”

PS: “You’re going to be a drone pilot.”

ME: “What?”

PS: “You’re leaving for Bagram Airfield.  You’ll get trained there for two weeks.”

ME: “When am I leaving?”

PS: “Two hours.”

ME: “Oh.”

PS: “Consider yourself lucky to be getting out of here.”

ME: “Why?”

PS: “Tomorrow we’re doing a dismounted patrol around the whole AO.”

And with that, I left to go pack my ruck for two weeks.  After a drive to the Forward Operating Base, a helicopter ride to Kandahar Airfield and a plane flight from Kandahar to Bagram, I finally settled in to where I’d be conducting my training.

I was one of four trainees for this session, and the laid back, nerdy Honeywell civilian contractors who trained us were quite a nice change of pace from the usual screaming Sergeant you get when you’re being learned in the Army.

The first few days were spent leaning the basics of the system.  When it started in development (2003), how much it weighed (20lbs), how fast it could go (over 60mph), what it ran on (gasoline), how long it could stay in the air at one time (40 minutes).

All the while the Honeywell people are telling us how awesome the T-Hawk was and how useful we’ll find it.

“You can send it out to scout ahead of you on patrols, and if there’s Taliban out there, you’ll see them before they see you.”

“You can stay behind the walls of your outpost and send the T-Hawk out to check out suspicious activity.”

After figuring out the basics, as well as how to link it with the computer guidance system, it was time to take it out and see it in action.

And as soon as we did, I knew it wasn’t going to be nearly as useful as the Honeywell people made it out to be.

Fast forward a month and after arriving back at the outpost, the COP’s first set of T-Hawks arrived. The platoon sergeant and platoon leader and a bunch of others gathered around as my training partner and I unpacked the boxes and started assembling the UAV.

We filled the small gas tank, attached the gimbals, checked the cameras, made sure it had a good connection with the laptop we used to operate it.

Then it was time for me to demonstrate how it starts.  And with complete and utter embarrassment I walked the T-Hawk out into the middle of the COP’s landing zone, placed it on the gravel, looked back at the various assembled platoon-mates…

…and like a suburban homeowner about to mow his lawn, I rip-pulled the engine cord to the T-Hawk.

Because unlike other electric-powered UAV’s in operation in Afghanistan, (such as the Raven) the T-Hawk ran on gasoline, and was, in essence, a set a very expensive cameras attached to a lawnmower engine.

And like a lawnmower, once in operation, the T-Hawk was extremely loud.  So loud that even after we demonstrated how it worked and what we could do with it, my platoon sergeant remarked:

“What fucking Taliban isn’t going to hear this coming a mile away?  Is there a way to make it quieter?”

“No, Sergeant.”

“Well, fuck.  This thing’s fucking useless.”

Of course, being useless didn’t stop us from using it, because if the Army hands you a $425,000 piece of equipment, they want to make sure they’re getting their money out of it.  I had to perform a certain number of “patrols” with T-Hawk and record any problems and send them back to Honeywell for analysis.

The patrols ended up just being flyovers around our outpost.  I would take the UAV up, fly it a few hundred meters around the outpost, which brought us right up to the edge of the villages that surrounded us.

I’d peer in, voyeuristically observing the lives of everyday Afghans.  I’d see women hanging clothes on a clothesline in their backyards (which was also the only time I ever saw Afghan women). I’d see old men sitting together having tea.  I’d watch children look up in wonder and chase after the drone as I maneuvered it around their mud-hut compounds.

It was fascinating, if not completely creepy.

After a while I had started to tolerate piloting the T-Hawk, as did my partner, who the more he piloted, the more he tried to stretch the boundaries of the drone’s physical limits.

One day, right after we had just re-fueled and attached chem lights so that we could find it easier in the dark, he took it so high up in the air it lost signal with the laptop and crashed straight down into a grape field.

A grape field about 600 meters away.

We had to send out a recovery team to find it, which, of course, included my partner and I.  After searching up and down every row of the three-acre grape field for more than two hours I finally noticed the glow of one of the chem lights.

The T-Hawk had crashed hard, but stayed relatively intact, if completely inoperable now.  It split into two large chunks, with the wire legs snapping off completely, disappearing under the tangled grape vines.

I carried most of it back to the outpost with one hand, while keeping my rifle in the other.  Both my partner and I were embarrassed we had crashed the drone, but even more upset it forced the rest of our platoon to go out on an impromptu dismounted patrol.

“Listen you two,” my Platoon Sergeant said to us afterwards. “From now on you’re to fly that thing only over the COP, is that clear?”

“Roger, Sergeant,” we said in unison.

Two weeks later I crashed the T-Hawk.

In fairness, it really crashed itself.  I was flying it over the outpost and just circling it around the towers when I directed it on the laptop to bring itself back to the landing zone.  The T-Hawk took the instructions, turned itself around, flew back over the lading zone…

…and then just kept going.

It flew over the LZ, over the outpost, I watched its movements on the laptop (since by this time it was completely out of view) and tried everything I could to command it back.

It didn’t listen.

By the time the dot on the screen indicating where the UAV was finally stopped, it was a full kilometer past the outpost, and looked to be right in between the outpost and the village of Ashoque – a not-too-friendly village my platoon had its first firefight in back in May.

Once again, a recovery team was called up – and since this was a day the platoon had a day off from patrols, everyone hated me.

We marched out of the COP, out to the last known location indicated on the computer.  By the time we got to where the search area was, the sun had started to set.

I realized then that there were no chem lights on the T-Hawk this time.  I hadn’t planned on flying it after dark.

We searched and searched and searched, through freezing streams and around thick brush.  Up hills and down slopes that lead into brambles and thickets that stuck to your uniform and scraped against your face.

We stayed out there for six hours looking for the T-Hawk.  By the time the search was called off for the night, soldiers were huddled around each other, shivering, holding their hands over a lighter to keep warm, and generally pretty miserable.

As soon as dawn came, we were back out again searching for it.  Daylight helped our morale, but it didn’t do anything to aid our efforts.  After another eight hours in the brush, the search was called off for good.

When we arrived back at the outpost, my partner and I were reamed out by our Platoon Sergeant.

“What the fuck, men?”  He said, standing in a Superman pose, spitting a wad of dip onto the ground. “Do you realize you could have gotten someone killed?  What if we would have gotten ambushed searching for that piece of shit?  What if someone would have stepped on an IED?  We would have been fucked.  I’m going inside and I’m going to consider writing you both up for Article 15’s.”

My sergeant was pissed, not just because he had to go out on two dismounted patrols in the middle of freezing cold November, but because he had to figure out a way to explain to his superiors how a half-million dollar piece of equipment just went missing.

Someone was going to have to write a report, and that report would have to explain what happened in a way that didn’t make it seem like his soldiers were complete idiots.  A report that would have to be so well-written and thorough that the higher-ups back the FOB couldn’t say anything.  A report written by someone who knows how to write.

Luckily for him, while many platoons have soldiers who can run fast, lift heavy objects, or shoot expert – he happened to have a soldier who knew how to spin a yarn.

So that’s what I did.  I typed out a three-page summary listing all the procedures I followed and safety checks initiated and recovery steps attempted.  I threw in so many technical terms straight out of the user’s manual that the report seemed to be written by the inventor himself.

I handed it off to my platoon sergeant, who handed it to the Company XO.  The Executive Officer looked it over, looked at me, looked it over again, and looked back at me.

“Holy fuck,” he said. “This is better than most reports written by officers.  Good job, Kirell.”

And with that, I escaped administrative punishment.

We never did receive another T-Hawk to replace the two we broke/lost.  Eventually the scout-sniper unit that was also given two T-Hawks crashed both of theirs as well.

For those keeping track, that’s $1.7 million lost, with absolutely no tangible benefit from using the drones.

And while the military is just one place the T-Hawk has been used, many police departments (such as in Miami)  are starting to use them.  They’ve also been used recently for surveillance of natural disaster sites.

After the Fukushima nuclear power station disaster in 2011, a T-Hawk  was used to conduct surveillance of the damaged area.  The drone took numerous photographs of the damaged reactor housings, turbine buildings, spent nuclear fuel rod containment pools, and associated facilities damaged by the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent hydrogen gas explosions at the facility. This allowed Tokyo Electric to better determine where the releases of radioactivity were coming from and how to best deal with them.

Proving that the T-Hawk wasn’t a horrible drone, just a horrible drone for Afghanistan.

Of course, a few weeks after it arrived on the scene, one of the T-Hawk’s used in the recovery effort crash-landed on the roof of the number 2 reactor building at Fukushima.

So maybe it was a horrible drone after all.

And that’s why I hated being a drone pilot of Afghanistan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Comment on “Why I Hated Being A Drone Pilot in Afghanistan”

  1. YoYoTheAssyrian
    April 27, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    Fascinating, most of the time when I think of drones, I think of the sleek fixed wing ones. It’s interesting to find out there is a huge variety, although that’s obvious in retrospect.

    I also find the noise and rip cord bits to really funny. It may just be a civilian perception, but army equipment has a terrible reputation. It’s perfect except for what you need to use it for

    Like

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