Story and photos by Sgt. Laura Bonano
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — The students ran through a list of function checks on a small remote controlled plane while another soldier held it to his chest, making sure the different elements responded to commands given through a computer ten feet away.
The tiny propeller whirled faster and faster while the operator held it high above his head.
“Launch, launch, launch,” he yelled before sending the plane flying.
It sailed a few feet into the air and then instantaneously, the nose dipped down towards the ground instead of gaining altitude.
The plane plowed headfirst into the ground with a crash.
Wings and other odd pieces flew off in different directions as people could be heard gasping and chuckling.
Fortunately, the Raven was designed to crash land.
Troops from the 594th Transportation Company had a chance to fly the RQ-11 Raven, an unmanned aerial vehicle, Feb. 22, aboard Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan as part of hands-on training.
The soldiers quickly got to work putting the parts back together to try again.
Three heads crowded in close to look at a computer screen encased in a black shade to block the blinding sun out on the UAV range. Data needed to be entered into the portable laptop for the global positioning function of the program.
The plane, slightly larger than an RC toy rested on the ground waiting for the second launch attempt by Sgt. Matthew Hair, a member of the 594th TC and native of Sumter, S.C.
The system’s main function is to gather intelligence using a mounted video camera to record surveillance of possible threats during convoys. Hair and other members of the unit previously completed a weeklong class to become familiar with the Raven and how to use it.
Hair said the training was important because the unit did not have many people experienced the system.
Once again, Hair prepared to send the Raven into the air. He made sure to take a few extra running steps, heaving the plane forcefully into the air and watched it gracefully soar off, gaining altitude.
“Yes!” Hair shouted as the plane flew out of view.
“It’s a very versatile aircraft, pretty stealthy and quiet,” said Hair. Sometimes observers did not know where the plane was because it made very little noise as it circled in the air.
Nine minutes later, the aircraft roughly landed again so someone else could practice flying it.
It is important for the students to have the skills to use the system because their job requires traveling in convoys that are targeted by improvised explosive devices, said Sgt. Steven McQueen.
McQueen, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the range, said the Raven directly combats IEDs by giving troops eyes on the roads where personnel cannot directly see.
One soldier said he especially wanted to come out to the range and see how the system works. He had an interest in all things remote controlled.
“I’ve done RC’s on the civilian side with cars and boats, but never with airplanes,” said Staff Sgt. Walter Lopez-Ortiz, a heavy wheel operator and native of Dorado, Puerto Rico. He said the Raven was essential to missions, but also fun to learn about.
“I haven’t flown it yet, but I’m gonna’ get my chance,” said Lopez.
Even though he did not attend the class prior to the range, Lopez expertly helped to put the aircraft back together after the jarring landings.
“I have two boats waiting for me right now back home,” said Lopez. He also mentions the possibility of getting an airplane next. He said he hopes to attend the class in the future.
Lopez said every unit that goes on convoys should train their soldiers on the Raven. He said if units only have one designated operator, that person might not be on the convoy when the enemy is lurking.
“If we don’t have the Raven out there watching out for us, they can be planting IEDs and waiting for us to just roll over one,” said Lopez.