MIGHTY HISTORY

Drones vs. Delta: Who do you think won the first round?

Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.

It was 1994 when my Delta Troop and I were training in the desert in preparation to deploy to the Mid-Eastern theater where there was much misbehaving going on. We spent a particular day primarily calling in anti-armor attacks from MH-60 Blackhawk (Hawkers) helicopters toting the venerable and extraordinarily deadly Hellfire missile.

We rotated ourselves onto a hilltop as Forward Observers choosing targets and directing the helo strikes. We used a Vietnam-era LASER designator called the MULE. The MULE "painted" the target with a LASER that the helo-mounted Hellfire could track all the way to the target.


ANPAQ-3 Modular Universal Laser Equipment (MULE)

Some men laughed at the MULE, but theirs was a shallow laugh as none of us could find fault with the noble seeker, and "if it ain't broke don't fix it." I intentionally picked armor targets as far away as possible, some 8,000 meters and beyond, to challenge the Hellfire capabilities. The challenge was always accepted, and the missiles never missed.

In addition to calling in fire from aircraft, we also launched Hellfires from our six-wheel drive Austrian-made assault vehicles using an improvised launch pedestal welded by our mechanics. Success was enjoyed as well with that highly mobile platform.

Vehicle-mounted Hellfire launch; we often joked that we got sleepy waiting for the Hellfire to reach its distant targets

Toward late afternoon our troop leadership introduced us to an Air Force lieutenant colonel who heard there was a group of Delta men training nearby and just had to come show off his latest Research and Development endeavor — a remote control pilotless aircraft. None of us really cared about him, or his drone but rank still had its privileges so ok...

He stood proudly amongst us and beamed as he bragged on his miniature airplane. He held his Ground Control Unit in his hands explaining that his drone was at the moment several kilometers to our southwest and that it had a $35,000 instrument payload that included a pilot's Situational Awareness (SA) camera focused ahead of the aircraft.

It was a gasoline-powered, propeller-driven drone with a wingspan of about 12'. Just as interest waned, he brought the drone in tight and had it scream a few feet over our heads. That was actually pretty cool, and questions started coming out for the colonel: how fast, how high, what duration, how many pounds payload... all measure of questions about the drone's capabilities.

This tragic friendly fire incident destroyed this Abrams tank with a Hellfire

"Sir, what's the learning curve like on piloting that craft?" came my question.

"I'll tell you what," the colonel began as he stepped toward me. "I'll let you see for yourself; give her a spin!" and he reached the ground control unit with its long whip antenna toward me. I immediately recoiled, not wanting to fool with all this expensive enigma.

"Fly it, a$hole!" the brothers started in on me.

"Yeah, get you some-o-that, chicken $hit!"

"Fly the damn plane, jacka$!"

And so it went, with the colonel thrusting the unit in my hands. All flight controls were there; all health inputs for the drone were displayed: speed, altitude, heading, fuel level, and others that I didn't recognize. In the center of the unit was a screen displaying the done's SA camera video feed.

It was very basic. All that was readily recognizable was black for the ground, and white for the sky. The black was toward the bottom of the screen with the majority of the screen white. There was a crosshair that cut across the screen representing an artificial horizon. I had seen similar instruments in the cockpit of an airplane, but as for flying these drones, I was fresh out of any experience whatsoever!

The true horizon on the screen was, of course, the line where the black (ground) met with the white (sky). The true horizon then should be under the aircraft's artificial horizon for safe, unobstructed flight. To keep level flight like the colonel told me, all I had to do was keep the two horizon lines parallel... and not breathe.

A representative artificial horizon from an aircraft cockpit. Here, brown represents ground and blue represents sky; where the two meet is the true horizon. The yellow horizontal line represents the aircraft's artificial horizon as it appears with the aircraft parked on the ground.

"Just keep that baby flat and stable; just hold with what you got," directed the colonel who then stepped back, turned and addressed the men in regard to how any plain-ol' idiot could fly the thing, just not in those exact words. He really was proud of and loved his job so.

As he babbled to the boys, I imagined somehow that the amount of black seemed to be expanding into the white somewhat... and then I was sure that the black was indeed encroaching more on the white, headed up toward that artificial horizon line... "Hey, Sir..."

"Just keep her flat and stable," the colonel yawned as he yapped to the yokels. Now the black rose up above the drone's artificial horizon on the screen. It was time to hit the ejection lever!

"Sir I think you better see this!" I insisted as I stepped up and thrust the control unit in his face.

"Juuuust keep'r flaaaaa... DOH!!"

With that, the colonel snatched the unit from my hands and yanked back on the joystick with Ren and Stimpy bulging eyes. When the colonel had passed off the controls to me, there was flat terrain below. Unfortunately, while he was delivering his dissertation, the drone approached a hill mass that was taller than the drone was high. The video screen blipped out.

"OH MY GOD YOU'VE... YOU'VE... FLOWN IT INTO A MOUNTAIN!"

You see, that right there... that is why I did NOT want any part of the colonel's toy. That thing was not such a piece of cake to operate as the man would have us believe. Let's face it, all I was doing was standing with a box in my hand — I was not operating it at all!

A typical modern control unit for a drone; note the SA video feed screen and joy sticks

I was fire-spittin' mad thinking about that $35,000.00 waste. The boys were howling like banshees now which salted the wound. I knew as well as the next man you can't bleed in the presence of sharks. Visions of myself in the squadron cartoon book filled my head. This event had certainly been most fitting fodder... ah, but as it is with photography, so it is with being the cartoonist: the photographer never has to be in the pictures.

The colonel could see I was mad as hell as he quickly called out:

"Ok, ok... it was absolutely not his fault, not his fault at all... he was just doing exactly what I told him to. It was entirely my fault!" That was true and gracious of him, but I was mad. I was mad at him, at myself, at that stupid airplane... and especially at that Goddamned mountain!

It was two days later my troop leader pulled up in a jeep and approached me carrying... a stick? He reached it out toward me and said:

"Hey, that drone colonel made it out to the crash site and wanted you to have this."

I held in my hand a two-bladed wooden propeller about 18-inches long. I'm pretty sure that Colonel meant no dig or sarcasm by the gesture, but now I was mad at the world again, and didn't like his little gift, not one little bit. I walked up to a trash dumpster near our tents. With a swoop of my arm, I cracked that propeller in two on the corner of the dumpster and flung the halves inside.

So twenty-six years ago we scoffed at the colonel's drone. What was it good for? What was the application? He was some boyish dude out playing with his toy. Little did we know at the time what an impact that research would have on the world, eh? Today the likes of drones are all but taking over in their application in our everyday lives.

Just yesterday my 13-year-old son and I went out to a nearby field to fly a remote Radio Controlled (RC) hobby airplane. After many successful laps my son reached the control my way and asked:

"Want to give it a try, Dad?"

...to which I replied to my now confused son:

"NO, DAMNIT... NO, NO, NO!!!"