By Joe Daraskevich
Times-Union Staff Writer
Note: Reprinted, courtesy of The Florida Times-Union.
Since the dawn of aviation, pilots have been able to rely on the simple method of looking through an aircraft's window to determine the weather ahead.
That's no longer an option for a relatively new squadron at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
This year a small group of aviation pioneers are ready to take the controls of drones as long as F-16s with wingspans the size of Boeing 757s as the future of maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is expanding.
The first 20 crew members of Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19) have passed through the training program and are now instructing others.
Soon they will be operating 48-foot-long MQ-4C Tritons with 131-foot wingspans from a building at Jacksonville NAS as the aircraft fly around the globe with nobody on board.
The first members of the Jacksonville-based squadron will be the inaugural group in the Navy to regularly control the drones, and they've developed a schoolhouse-type setting on base where others in the squadron are following their example.
"They'll be the leaders within the squadron," said Cmdr. Benje Stinespring, the commanding officer of VUP-19.
Those 20 leaders make up four crews that will work in shifts to complete each mission since the Tritons can stay in the air for 24 hours at a time.
Each crew includes an air vehicle operator, a tactical coordinator and two mission payload operators. They will operate the drones from a room that looks more like a computer lab than a cockpit.
The air vehicle operator is in charge of flying the aircraft, but the tactical coordinator has the freedom to direct where the aircraft needs to go. The coordinator also directs the efforts of the mission payload operators who control the surveillance equipment on the aircraft.
'AVIATE, NAVIGATE, COMMUNICATE'
The Navy is following the Air Force's lead in the world of large unmanned surveillance aircraft.
The Tritons and the Air Force's RQ-4 Global Hawks are the same length and have the same wingspan. But despite having very similar capabilities, Stinespring said there is a major difference between the way the Navy and Air Force fill out their squadrons.
"The Navy has elected to source the Triton community from within the maritime patrol and reconnaissance force," Stinespring said. "So all of the air crew that are selected to come here have already completed at least one, sometimes multiple tours of duty."
The Air Force allows people to go straight from flight school to the unmanned aircraft program.
Stinespring said the Navy's policy of selecting experienced airmen allows them to tailor the syllabus to be more of a transitional program rather than having to teach the basics of the mission.
"They take their previous mission experience and we teach them how to do those same things with the new gear," said Lt. Cmdr. Phil Sautter, the officer in charge of the fleet integration team.
The Navy started the team well before the squadron was established in October 2016. Sautter said they worked with the test community at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland to develop the training program and help teach the initial group of unmanned aircraft operators.
"It's not much different in the sense that it's aviate, navigate, communicate," said Lt. Brennan Zwak, a pilot instructor on the integration team.
He said as an instructor in the Triton program it's easier than teaching general aviation because the focus is on the tools associated with the unmanned aircraft compared to the ones in the aircraft the pilots are used to. Teaching the basic mission on top of that would mean a much longer learning process, he said.
LEARNING HOW TO FLY
The most difficult aspect for the students in VUP-19 is learning to trust an autonomously flown aircraft, Zwak said.
Stinespring said once the operators understand how to use that technology to their advantage, it's actually easier than flying a manned aircraft because you don't have to worry about keeping the drone straight and level.
He said that's an enormous challenge in traditional Navy surveillance aircraft - the P-8A Poseidon and the P-3C Orion - and once the pilots understand the Triton is programed to stay level, it frees up their mind to concentrate on other things.
"The plane is a little bit smarter than I am," said Lt. Cmdr. Pat Imhoff. "It's hard to say that, but in a manned aircraft I have to make a decision as to if that plane goes left or right or up and down."
He has other things to worry about in a Triton.
Imhoff is an aircraft commander who made the jump from a P-3 to the Triton. He said another major shift for him was moving from an aircraft with four engines to an aircraft with just one, where altitude is now his friend.
He said extra altitude will be a good thing when flying a single-engine Triton in case something happens and he needs to safely land the drone. The Tritons can fly higher than 10 miles in the air, according to the Navy, but finding a place to land isn't quite as easy as in a traditional aircraft.
"In a manned aircraft if I have an emergency and I look down and see BWI [Baltimore-Washington International Airport], I can declare an emergency and land there," Imhoff said. "In this platform I can be next to 17 airports and I can't land at any of them because it's not programmed to go there."
Right now the squadron has one Triton in its possession operating out of Point Mugu, Calif., with another coming as soon as runway construction is complete. Each one cost just under $200 million, according to the Department of Defense.
The drones will be flying out of Point Mugu Naval Air Station for training events and then flying out of Guam when the Tritons start operations in the Pacific Fleet.
The squadron is technically split between Jacksonville and Point Mugu with about 100 total personnel in Jacksonville and about 170 in California. The Point Mugu side makes up the maintenance staff who work to maintain the aircraft.
Stinespring said hundreds of measurements have to be made at each airfield before they are authorized for the drones. A big part of the training syllabus is learning all the landing options around the globe, he said.
The students also have to learn terminology that is unique to the Triton community, and part of the job is translating that terminology for air traffic controllers. Most of the language is similar, but sometimes they have to explain what's happening in general terms so the airspace remains safe, Sautter said.
He said the physical aircraft in the sky on the other hand shouldn't impact other aviators very much.
"To the air traffic controllers and the other airspace users it should be no different," Sautter said. "If the pilot is doing their job, they should go right into the fold and there should be no issue."
WEATHER FACTOR
Communication is also a big factor when it comes to navigating around the weather, Stinespring said. The pilots don't have to worry about keeping the aircraft level, so it allows them to concentrate on the weather thousands of miles away.
"We can change the course, and we can deviate around weather as long as we know the weather is there," Imhoff said. "That's the hardest part."
He said instead of looking out the window of the cockpit as the aircraft approaches a weather system, he has to get used to monitoring websites and maintaining communication lines with air traffic controllers wherever the Triton is flying.
The crew also has to worry about what the weather will be like in the flight path thousands of miles away and as far into the future as the next day, Stinespring said.
"That's what they need to be thinking about because that's going to determine when they need to come home from there," he said.
COMPLETING MISSIONS TOGETHER
The Tritons are not replacing the manned P-3s and P-8s that have been flying out of Jacksonville for years. The three types of aircraft will be working together to accomplish the same mission, Stinespring said.
He referred to nonfiction books about the early days of maritime surveillance where crews spent hours in the air searching for vessels of interest. Stinespring said he envisions a Navy 10 years from now where the Triton program will be able to track a vessel from port to port without ever losing it for a moment.
For closer surveillance the Triton crew will be able to transmit the specific location of a vessel to a P-3 or P-8 crew to allow them to move in and track every specific movement. The days of hiding will practically be over for vessels trying to dodge Navy aviators, Stinespring said.
"That's why it's a game changer," he said. "It's the persistent stare versus the chance to go out and try to find the needle [in the haystack] everyday."
Just as the operators of different types of aircraft will have to work together to complete the mission, so will the operators of each Triton.
There will be a briefing on the flight plan before each shift so the new crew understands what the previous crew accomplished and what the goals are for the incoming crew. Then at each shift change there will be a face-to-face update as the crews sit side by side before passing along the controls.
"For me in a manned aircraft, a lot of the times the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment came from completing the mission, not necessarily flying the plane itself," Lt. Matt Willard said. "I think once we start operating this thing we are going to have that same feeling coming off a shift that it was a successful completion."
Willard is part of the first class to make it through the training process. He said it's possible that he'll transition back to flying manned aircraft for his next tour, but for now he's working hard to master a new tool in the world of aviation.
The Triton program is barely off the ground right now, but Willard and the others who will be perfecting the process will be doing so from Jacksonville.