MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Since the French Revolution, military commanders have been using aerial reconnaissance to monitor enemy movements. The system has evolved from vehicles using primitive smoke balloons to modern unmanned aerial vehicles.
Aboard the Combat Center, members of the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 provide support to units with aerial reconnaissance and surveillance.
“The main focus of every mission that goes on is to just do our best and try to do what we do in-country, what we do in the states,” said Cpl. Alexander Keil, UAV operator with VMU-1. “That way we have the best support we can give the troops on the ground.”
The operators are only one part of the team that keeps the craft ready to fly.
“We have a lot of help coming from our maintainers,” said Keil, a Pago Pago, American Samoa, native. “A lot of people don’t give them enough credit, and there are so many different things that put a UAV into the air.”
As the maintainers prep the birds for flight, they have to worry about both their vehicles and their crews.
“[We have to make] sure the bird is in the right conditions for flight and safe for flight,” said Cpl. Quinn Austen Schwehr, a UAV maintainer. “I have to worry about my crew that’s on the ground, that everybody uses the proper protection.”
As they launch and land the vehicles, the biggest problem presented aboard the Combat Center is the constant wind.
“We can’t launch with any tail wind at all, and you can’t land it with anything above five knots,” said Schwehr, a Kennewick, Wash., native. “The wind changes a lot out here, so we have to switch landing gear or rotate the launcher so it is facing into it.”
When it comes time to land the planes, they clear the runway and, just like navel pilots on aircraft carriers, hope the hook grabs the line.
“We will have a bird that will land and skip over the resting gear [line],” Schwehr said. “So it will either catch on the second [line], or else it will go into the net. Net recoveries usually break a communications relay package, so there’s not that much damage when they hit the net.”
Before they can send the planes out, communications must be set up.
“Every day we set up radios so we can talk with the towers out here, and we can talk to the ground units,” said Lance Cpl. Antquan Milledge, a radio operator. “The bird can’t go up if the communications isn’t up.”
Milledge explained that, despite periodic weather complications, how the Combat Center is a great place for the UAV team to fix any problems that might come up.
“This is still a training facility, so it does help us repair,” Milledge, an Albany, N.Y., native. “We can troubleshoot a lot of stuff our here, so when we are in combat or in theater we know what to do, we know what works and what don’t work.”