1st operational Coast Guard UAS pilot ready to develop program

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas M. Blue

After eight years of testing the Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems program, the U.S. Coast Guard has its first qualified operational UAS pilot ready to develop and implement training and standardization for the service’s newest branch of aviation assets—UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Coast Guard Lt. Thomas Shuler returned to his duty station at the Coast Guard’s Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Ala., as a qualified UAS pilot, after landing his General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Predator at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Training Facility in Sierra Vista, Ariz., Oct. 21, 2009.

“It’s an honor to train with the CBP and to earn the title as first operational UAS pilot,” Shuler said.

While Shuler is the first operational pilot, he was not the first Coast Guard pilot qualified to fly a UAS. That distinction is held by Cmdr. Jose Saliceti, now stationed at the U.S Navy’s Commander Operational Test and Evaluation Force in Norfolk, Va.

The Coast Guard is currently working with the Navy evaluating and testing different UAS platforms to determine those best suited for maritime deployment operations.

The Coast Guard’s UAS testing began in February of 2001 when a Boeing Condor UAV deployed aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane to evaluate how a UAV would operate from a cutter and its potential as an asset.

Since then, the Coast Guard’s research and development branch in Groton, Conn., working alongside the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and other Department of Homeland Security agencies, has been steadily testing several of the U.S. government’s UAS platforms already in use by the DoD.

Coast Guard pilots attend a nine-week CBP UAS training course. They train first at the UAS Operations Center in Grand Forks, N.D., located on the Grand Forks Air Force Base and secondly at the Predator-B training facility at Fort Huachuca, in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

“It was an easy fit and transition, training under the CBP,” explained Shuler. “The missions they fly are similar to the missions we fly every day.”

Shuler, a six-year veteran as an HU-25 Guardian pilot, decided to enroll in the UAS program once he saw the opportunity to succeed in the Coast Guard utilizing a new aircraft and technology. He will maintain his qualifications on both airframes, therefore increasing his operational capabilities.

“I decided to apply for the UAS program because I wanted to be part of something new and innovative in the Coast Guard,” Shuler said. “Along with my command giving me the opportunity to succeed with this new technology, I will have a footprint in bringing a new aircraft and technology into Coast Guard aviation.”

Now back at ATC Mobile, Shuler, along with a few other newly qualified pilots and maintenance officers, will take on the ever important task of developing standards and training program for the newly created UAS branch.

“With such a new technology, there are new challenges and hurdles to cross,” Shuler said with confidence. “We ask ourselves, ‘How are we going to use a UAS in the Coast

Guard and use it to the Coast Guard’s advantage in support of SAR or Homeland Security?’ Implementation of new technology and a new aircraft is always an obstacle but one the UAS Branch looks forward to tackling.”

At this early stage of development the UAS branch team will be responsible for developing manuals and procedures and also creating maintenance schedules. All components needed to bring the program on line.

Also, the UAS program is scheduled to get its first maintenance officer, Chief Warrant Officer Scott Corner, an aviation engineer also stationed at ATC Mobile.

“I’ll be attending several maintenance schools and developing a maintenance schedule for the UAS program,” Corner said. “Also, I’ll be looking at the other branches and see how each conduct and oversee their individual UAS programs and find the best way for us to administer ours.”

Another part of the branch development stage is getting crewmembers qualified to maintain and repair the UAVs. Procedures and steps are being established to send enlisted aviation maintenance technicians to UAS maintenance schools in the future.

These procedures are important when developing the program since Coast Guard crewmembers are responsible for repairing and maintaining each airframe in the fleet and do not contract out any maintenance or repairs.

Each branch of Armed Forces utilized the UAS program in its own way. The common mission to protect and defend is the same, but there are different platforms and standards. This is where Shuler and the UAS branch members’ roles are so important. What they develop and propose will lay the foundation and groundwork for future Coast Guard UAS pilots.

“What we develop, if approved, will be incorporated into the Coast Guard Air Operations Manual,” Shuler said. “Basically outlining what we can and cannot do with the aircraft.”

The Coast Guard is currently testing two different UASs: the Northrup Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout and the MQ-9 Predator. Each UAS has very distinct differences and capabilities, one of them being a fixed-wing and the other a helicopter.

“It’s an awesome program with a lot of potential to increase Coast Guard capabilities,” said Shuler.

For instance, according to a CBP fact sheet, the MQ-9 Predator B can reach altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, fly at speeds of approximately 240 knots, has a range of approximately 3,222 miles and can fly for up to 30 hours. This flight duration greatly increases how long the Coast Guard could stay on station during a search and rescue mission.

During a case with multiple people in the water and air assets needing to switch out and refuel, an UAV could stay on scene and monitor situational developments, relaying real-time video and other information to search and rescue controllers on the ground or aboard cutters.

Another advantage to the flying a UAV is its ease of piloting from anywhere in the world.

“It’s really amazing technology,” Shuler says. “We fly the Predators from the ground control station, which means: I can be sitting overseas and fly a mission in Las Vegas if needed.

The GCS is basically a cockpit built into a high-tech trailer that can be towed anywhere it’s needed. It is equipped with all the latest communications and optical viewingapparatuses needed to fly a $10 million dollar remote-controlled aircraft. Included in GCS are HF, UHF, VHF radios, cellular satellite communications, infrared radar, GPS, TV monitors and several types of recording devices that can store and relay real-time information for strategic planning and observation of missions all over the world.

Lastly, as the early stages of the Coast Guard UAS program are being developed, Shuler and the new branch crewmembers will be working alongside the CBP flying joint missions on a regular basis. As of now, there are three locations crewmembers will deploy in support of CBP law enforcement missions: Cape Canaveral, Fla., Grand Forks, N.D., and Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

These missions and continued training with CBP will not only maintain the Coast Guard’s UAS pilot’s qualifications, but also aid in the development of the Coast Guard’s UAS program and lay the foundation for future pilots to follow.

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