A maintenance airman inspects an MQ-9
Reaper in Afghanistan, where many of the Reapers,
used for air support, surveillance and targeting
enemies, are controlled by New York Air National
Guard's 174th Fighter Wing in Syracuse. Those to fly
over the Adirondacks will not carry weapons.
If you feel like you’re being watched while
floating in a canoe or driving along some lonely road
in the Adirondacks this summer, you might be right.
In June, the New York Air National Guard’s 174th
Fighter Wing in Syracuse plans to begin regular
unmanned surveillance flights from Fort Drum over the
The training mission of the drones, called Reapers,
will mark the first ongoing flights east of the
Mississippi with aircraft that don’t have people in
The 174th’s New York flights will train pilots (who
remotely fly the planes) and sensor operators (who
monitor video shot from the plane). The Reapers, or
MQ-9s, will be controlled from a station at Hancock
Airfield, the same place from which the 174th is
flying Reapers over Afghanistan.
The New York flights will not be armed and should
be undetectable by those on the ground.
The new training mission shows the Syracuse air
guard unit’s prominence in the growing role of
unmanned military aircraft. It also hints at the
looming issues of civil liberties and air safety that
come with government surveillance by unmanned aircraft
over American soil.
The MQ-9, or
Reaper drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle that the
174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard
plans to begin flying from Syracuse in training
missions over a portion of the Adirondacks this
summer. For the past year the airwing has been flying
Reapers from Syracuse over Afghanistan. U.S. Customs
and Border Protection already flies the MQ-9 along
U.S. land borders. The drone can stay in the air up to
20 hours. It has highly sensitive optical, infrared
and synthetic aperture radar sensors that can see in
great detail from miles away. Video courtesy of U.S.
Customs and Border Protection.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection flew an unarmed
MQ-9 over northern New York for 30 days of testing
during the summer of 2009. That craft launched from
Fort Drum and was operated from North Dakota and
The agency’s seven MQ-9s regularly fly along the
southern U.S. border and the northern U.S. border west
of Minnesota. With its highly sensitive cameras and
radar, the drone can “see” people crossing a border 20
miles away, said John Priddy, the agency’s director of
air operations in Grand Forks, N.D.
The border patrol hopes to regularly fly MQ-9s over
northern New York by 2016. When that happens, the
agency plans to operate them from North Dakota, Priddy
The FAA, which has created an Unmanned Aircraft
Program Office, has been cautious about allowing
unmanned aircraft flights in unrestricted airspace.
There is no reliable technology to help unmanned
aircrafts “sense and avoid” other aircraft.
The MQ-9’s accident rate is seven times the general
aviation rate, and 353 times the commercial aviation
rate, based on a few thousand hours of drone flights
by the border patrol.
At a Jan. 13 presentation to the Adirondack Park
Agency, Col. Charles “Spider” Dorsey, the 174th
Fighter Wing’s vice commander, touted the safety of
Air Force MQ-9s. His data, based on about 70,000
flight hours, comes from the military’s experience
flying mostly in war zones where there is almost no
commercial or civilian traffic.
Reapers like this one at Creech Air
Force Base, Nev., are capable of carrying both
precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.
The Air Force Reaper’s accident rate is similar to
the F-16 fighter jet for the same number of hours
flown, Dorsey said. The Air Force and Air National
Guard have had 10 major accidents with the Reaper
(causing death, permanent disability or the plane’s
destruction). Seven were caused by human error, three
by aircraft malfunction, he said. Most came during
Once the “sense and avoid” issue is resolved,
domestic use of drones is expected to rise rapidly,
according to the FAA.
As of Dec. 1, the FAA had issued 273 authorizations
to fly at least 72 different types of unmanned
aircraft. Some are the size of birds and launched by
hand. The Miami Dade police department recently bought
a RQ-16 T-hawk drone, which takes off vertically,
looks like a small robot and can fly as high as 10,000
feet for more than 40 minutes.
The 174th Fighter Wing has been flying the heavily
armed Reaper in Afghanistan since December 2009. The
174th’s Hancock base is one of six sites in the nation
from which Reapers in Afghanistan are flown.
For the northern New York training missions, the
174th Fighter Wing has requested permission initially
for Reapers to fly above 18,000 feet, over general
aviation planes. When “sense and avoid” gear develops,
the 174th plans to fly at lower altitude.
Practice following cars
The Reapers’ high altitude and relative quiet make
them hard to detect, which has contributed to their
heavy use for surveillance in Afghanistan and in
Pakistan, where the CIA flies them.
An unarmed Reaper can fly up to 20 hours, cruise at
roughly 180 mph as high as 40,000 feet, loitering over
For training maneuvers over New York, the Reapers
will randomly follow vehicles or circle over
buildings, giving pilots and operators experience
watching something on the ground, Dorsey said.
A possible exercise might be to sight “the next car
driving north across the Black River out of Castorland,
and track that vehicle as it makes turns, goes under
trees and behind barns,” Dorsey said.
Would someone know they were being watched? asked
Leilani Crafts Ulrich, an APA commissioner.
An MQ-9 drone's imaging equipment
snapped this electro-optical image of a scene 12 miles
away. The imaging equipment includes an infrared
“No,” Dorsey said. “They’d have no way of knowing
they were targeted.”
During training, Reapers will
not monitor specific people or places, Dorsey said.
Department of Defense regulations prohibit targeted
surveillance of U.S. citizens in training missions.
However, DOD does allow exceptions with approval
from the secretary of defense. In such cases,
surveillance data is turned over to agencies such as
border patrol, FBI, Immigrations and Customs
Enforcement and the Coast Guard, the regulation
Use by police agencies
At Fort Drum, a new $2.7 million Reaper hangar
and control station is planned to be built at
Wheeler Sack Army Airfield by 2012, said Lt. Col.
Fred Tomaselli, military airspace manager for the
N.Y. Air National Guard.
For live missile training, the 174th is seeking
permission to fly Reapers within a small restricted
flight zone over Fort Drum and eventually over part
of Lake Ontario.
Similar training observations over the
Adirondacks were made by pilots of F-16s, which the
174th flew for more than 20 years, Dorsey said. The
158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard
still flies F-16s over the Adirondacks.
By 2014, the 174th plans to fly Reapers inside
the same flight zones that F-16 fighter jets flew, a
broad expanse over the Adirondacks and Lake Ontario,
as well as between Syracuse and Fort Drum.
The guard doesn’t have FAA approval to fly drones
between Syracuse and Fort Drum. When Reapers need to
be moved, they are taken apart and trucked.
The 174th Fighter Wing has a school to teach
Reaper maintenance in Syracuse. It is seeking
approval for a flight school to teach pilots and
operators. Students could include military personnel
from Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and Turkey,
according to Air Force documents.
Months ago, the 174th wing commander, Col. Kevin
Bradley said his unit plans to have three cockpits
(or control stations) at Hancock, each responsible
for up to four Reapers overseas. Maj. Jeff Brown,
spokesman for the Fighter Wing, would not say
whether the 174th had met its goals.
Police agencies in Texas, Maryland, Florida and
Colorado are already flying some version of unmanned
air vehicles, the Washington Post recently reported.
At this point the FAA grants authorization to police
agencies on a case-by-case basis.
In New York state, the 174th could be called upon
by state or civil authorities to fly Reapers during
emergencies, Dorsey said.
“Let’s say Nine Mile Point (nuclear reactor)
suffered a major radiation leak, he said. “You
wouldn’t want a manned aircraft up there monitoring