A 4-pound bird-like aircraft soars after midnight 3,000 feet above Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, its high-tech eye looking for anyone who might be somewhere he doesn’t belong. The small, remotely piloted aircraft patrols the base’s space launch complexes to ensure that the area will be safe for the scheduled pre-dawn launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.
The 30th Security Forces Squadron’s Small Unarmed Aerial Systems uses the RQ-11 Raven B, which has the original Raven’s 4.5-foot wingspan with a range of up to 10,500 feet, but is now equipped with rotating cameras that deliver real-time color or infrared images to its ground control and remote viewing stations below.
“Anybody can drive down the road and sweep it by looking at the brush that’s immediately around the area, but they can’t see a kilometer or two in the brush,” said Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Hawkinson, the 30th SUAS Raven program NCO in charge. “We have the eyes above to sweep all those areas that they cannot get to and to be able to relay that information. There’s no better feeling than when that time comes when you happen to catch that intruder and know that you’ve done your job.
“Most of the time, we encounter nothing. But you think about the one time we don’t have it, and that’s probably the time somebody is trespassing on the perimeter and actually getting to our resources.”
The Raven already proved its value in deployed locations because of its capability of providing a bird’s-eye view outside the wire without risking personnel or other resources. The Vandenberg program began in 2005 with the older models, but the Raven stopped flying there when newer systems were introduced until security forces began rebuilding the SUAS program a couple of years ago. Eventually, the program was separated from launch support, and Hawkinson was chosen to oversee it.
Although Vandenberg has had the current Raven for two years, it is still considered primarily a training mission. Hawkinson is working on getting mission qualification training through Air Force Special Operations Command, but they are now considered in training for launch support, coast and fire sweeps and hazardous materials situations, he said. However, the Raven has provided aerial security for every launch at Vandenberg since May 2013.
“Our unique mission allows us to utilize this system for the mass terrain that we have here that would make it hard for patrols on foot or in vehicles to get to,” Hawkinson said. “So we will get into the air to cover that area, and if we were to spot something, then we can guide our forces in to make sure everything is secure with resources on base.”
Prior to adding the Raven, Vandenberg relied mostly on its all-terrain vehicles, the Air Force’s only active mounted horse patrol and security checkpoints for space launch security. Today, the small RPA covers the base’s near 100,000 acres of terrain on random range security sweeps in the days before and during the launch. After the missile blasts off, the Raven operators assist the fire department by looking for any possible fires resulting from the launch.
“We provide aerial security for launch facilities and space launch complex missions because we can cover a larger area to ensure that there’s no one trespassing within the impact limit line when it comes to these missions,” Hawkinson said. “One person trespassing through the impact limit line can possibly halt a launch, causing delays and millions of dollars lost.”
Although the Raven can fly up to 10,500 feet in elevation, it only flies as high as 3,000 feet at Vandenberg. But unlike larger RPAs, the Raven doesn’t need ground support teams, a fuels or maintenance section, or other support. The program has a total of 23 models, and operators take three at a time that can be assembled in the field from their small cases.
As the vehicle operator, Hawkinson prepares to throw the Raven into the air like a football as his mission operator and assistant program NCOIC, Staff Sgt. Rian Hudson, tracks it as a triangular blip on his laptop screen. The footage is recorded and maintained on the laptop, and they report anything of concern to ground security patrols. Any images not needed are deleted, Hudson said.
Hawkinson and Hudson say they sometimes feel like they’re kids again because their job allows them to fly the Raven, which takes both 30th SFS SUAS operators back to their childhood hobbies with toy aircraft.
Although Hudson enjoyed model rockets in high school, he never flew a remote control plane before the Raven.
“This is like every kid’s dream because getting to work with toys is basically our job,” he said. “You get out there in the terrain, and you can go almost anywhere with these things, throw them up in the air and fly them around like you would with any toy. We are doing great things for the mission, as well as having fun.”
As the son of an Air Force firefighter, Hawkinson, on the other hand, had a passion for airplanes, tanks and military history. He was working in the 30th SFS when a master sergeant selected for the program wasn’t interested in the position. Someone suggested Hawkinson because of his love for remote control planes, and he was selected.
“I never expected to be doing a job like this,” he said. “So when I got awakened early in the morning to be notified that I was being hired, I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke on me. I had to kind of sit up in my bed, clear my eyes and make sure I fully understood who was on the phone and what was being said. When I realized it wasn’t someone playing a joke on me, I couldn’t go back to sleep after working 14 hours. I was ecstatic.”
The Raven is prohibited from flying over base housing and off base, and Hawkinson ensures he follows the restrictions on the RPA to the letter, he said. The Raven’s purpose is solely to patrol over the areas difficult to access on Vandenberg.
The Raven’s pre-launch patrol showed the space launch area was clear of any trespassers or people wandering in unsafe areas in search of a good view of the ICBM blasting into the dark California sky. So the Minuteman was able to launch at exactly 3:53 a.m., as scheduled.