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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedPredator pioneers a path to AirVenture 2009
By Frederick A. Johnsen, EAA AirVenture Today
  

July 27, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin - With no one on board flying, an exciting aircraft landed at Wittman Field for AirVenture 2009—the stealthy, gray Predator B remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft.

That landing established another first for AirVenture: it’s the first time a civilian airfield has hosted an aircraft like the Predator B. The event came about only after eight months of negotiating and collaborating between the aircraft’s operators and the FAA.

Predator B aircraft became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency following their successes with the U.S. military in overseas antiterrorism campaigns.

Home for this Predator B is Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Thomas Griffin, operations manager for the border-patrolling Predator program, said a certificate of authorization (COA) to fly a Predator to Oshkosh was turned down by the FAA in 2008 – an outcome that may have had something to do with proposed dates of operations, he said. This year he began negotiating a COA for visiting AirVenture 2009 in January and a key to his success this year was the proposed operating window.

The Predator flew in to Oshkosh July 21 and won’t depart until August 5, well outside the footprint of most air-show traffic.

Click for photo gallery

Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen
The unmanned Predator B aircraft at AirVenture 2009 drew questions from visitors.

The Predator B launched this mission from Grand Forks with takeoff controlled by a ground-based pilot in North Dakota using a C-band link, a line-of-sight communications band. At altitude control switched to K-band satellite communications, and then returned to C-band so the Predator could be landed by a different pilot in a ground control station parked on Wittman Field for this special mission.

For this special cross-country sortie, the Predator was accompanied by a piloted CBP Cessna Citation as part of its COA requirements, Griffin said. That had to do with the Predator’s flight outside of its normal operating area and its landing at a civilian airfield.

The CBP Citation was required to stay no more than one mile laterally and 100 feet vertically off the Predator, explained John Priddy, deputy director of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) Operations Center in North Dakota.

Another factor in Predator’s presence at Oshkosh this year is the growing base of experience between CBP’s UAS operators and the FAA, Griffin explained.

Since inaugurating operations in North Dakota along the northern tier of the United States, the Predators have been encountered repeatedly by the FAA’s Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTC) controllers as the gray reconnaissance aircraft follow a strictly-defined climb corridor to an operating box in Category A airspace—above 18,000 feet—along the U.S. border with Canada.

And that’s a point Griffin and Priddy emphasized repeatedly—as UAS aircraft gain more hang time in the U.S. airspace system, their successes will continue to validate their expanded use.

“It’s a real partnership for us and the FAA,” Priddy explained. “We couldn’t do it without them.

” Progress is evident in the few short years UAS vehicles have flown in American skies. When Predators operate in their assigned southern and northern tier patrol boxes, they now fly using a yearlong COA that does not require renegotiation before each mission. These COAs still require the aircraft to avoid overflying populated areas, Griffin noted.

Various users and advocates of UAS keep working together with the FAA, with the goal of making the arrival of UAS aircraft at Oshkosh unremarkable in the future. But even then, don’t expect to see Customs and Border Protection Predators at many air shows.

“We have work to do,” Griffin explained.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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