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Sun., Oct. 4
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Remote-controlled aircraft exercises at Fort Drum to use explosives


FORT DRUM — The training for pilots of remotely controlled aircraft at the post’s ranges will move to live munitions starting this week.

Since January, training pilots from the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing, Syracuse, have operated at the ranges with inert munitions. Receiving clearance from the post, live fire training will begin, with pilots conducting training events in the afternoons and evenings.

“It’s a good thing in my mind that we’re beginning to do that,” said Col. Greg A. Semmel, the air wing’s commander. He said a start time for the use of live munitions was up to the timing of training, but said “we’re getting close.”

Pilots are flying the MQ-9 Reaper, a remotely piloted aircraft, and firing 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. Though the air wing for years has done live fire training with other aircraft, such as F-16 fighter jets, this will be the first time they will do so with the remotely controlled craft.

While ground crews based at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield are responsible for their maintenance and getting them off the ground initially, control of the 10,500-pound aircraft is transferred early in the flight to training pilots in Syracuse, who operate out of a full cockpit setup at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base.

“It’s a full cycle, from the maintainers to the weapons personnel to the operators, to build up a weapon and then use it,” Col. Semmel said.

With several hours of flight time, several pilots can assume two-hour periods of control of the aircraft in a single mission. In a live fire scenario, ranges can be set up with a variety of targets, such as old tanks and arrays that would simulate a ground-to-air missile launcher.

Though the aircraft are frequently linked to drones, Col. Semmel explained they are not similar based on the type of control exerted over them. While he said drones are preset and operate autonomously, with the remotely controlled aircraft “we’re very much controlling it 100 percent of the time.”

Col. Semmel added the visibility when flying the aircraft is much higher than when he flew an F-16.

While the remotely flown aircraft are not considered drones by the Army, Fort Drum in the past few months has been discussed as a possible site for the placement of a pair of drone programs.

In October, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, mentioned the Gray Eagle Drone’s placement in a congressional debate. At the December meeting of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, executive director Carl A. McLaughlin reported the Federal Aviation Administration could select the post either this month or in January as one of six testing sites for new drones, following a pitch by nonprofit organization NUAIR.

In its statement, the air wing noted its training could be loud, with the cold air working as a conductor of sound. Residents with questions about the training may contact the post’s gunnery range at 1 (800) 228-3567.

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