SOUTHWEST ASIA — If you walked inside this massive hangar, your eyes would be drawn to the giant U.S. Flag displayed in the background. But beneath Old Glory, there is much else to focus on.
A team of crew chiefs, avionics and ground communication specialists quietly work on a modern day weapon system. Their hard work enables a capability important to every deployed servicemember, and the way they go about it is nothing short of special.
The maintainers, assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, are responsible for maintaining and ensuring the RQ-4 Global Hawk is able to deliver round-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and communication support to ground forces and aerial platforms conducting missions in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.
“The Global Hawk provides imagery intelligence and signals intelligence and delivers it warfighters and decision makers,” said Master Sergeant Matthew, lead production superintendent. “It’s constantly taking imagery and feeding it back for analysis. It can be used to identify a friendly forces or enemies, or do long-term target development and even track where enemies are moving equipment.”
Being able to provide near real-time coverage has enabled combatant commanders to act on better information and make key decisions, which impact Coalition forces combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
But it also provides a crucial element to the frontlines that is critical to campaign success.
“One of the many things the Global Hawk uses is the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) which is a system that essentially provides Wi-Fi to the battlefield,” said Master Sgt. Matthew. “It allows ground troops to contact aircraft when they’re in need of assistance, such as close air support. Getting the Global Hawk in the air is one of the highest priorities out here.”
The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude remotely piloted aircraft, has been employed in overseas contingency operations since November 2001. Keeping the asset in the sky is no easy task.
The maintainers are constantly repairing and quick-turning Global Hawks for the next sortie. Most of the maintainers are still learning the aircraft and how it functions, which provides them opportunities to think outside of the box to create solutions.
“We do a lot of maintenance and troubleshooting issues on a very high-tech aircraft where the answers are not always available in the technical data. We have to work hard to get it ready in time for the next mission,” said Senior Airman Marty, Global Hawk avionics technician. “It’s a unique plane and it presents challenges to us. I’m always learning something new about the aircraft and figuring out new ways to solve problems.”
The Global Hawk is operated by two different cells, the Launch and Recovery Element and the Mission Control Element.
The Launch and Recovery Element performs maintenance and prepares the aircraft for flight with a small group of pilots launching and landing the Global Hawk through line-of-sight capabilities in the area of responsibility. Once the aircraft is airborne and a link is established with the Mission Control Element, the controls are passed over.
“We have two pieces to the puzzle; the ground control station and the aircraft. We’re running two aircraft systems that we have to bring together for a launch,” said Master Sgt. Matthew. “It’s a unique aircraft launch because the cockpit is geographically separated from the aircraft. It has to be extremely precise so the cockpit can link with the aircraft. Every launch is truly an event.”
While most aircraft missions last eight to ten hours, the Global Hawk offers extraordinary range and flexibility to meet mission requirements. The unmanned aircraft can perform missions which last up to 30 hours.
“When the aircraft sorties last that long, scheduled maintenance comes sooner,” said Senior Airman Marty. “However, the aircraft flies at high altitudes and comes back less worn than other aircraft. It’s different compared to maintaining other jets.”
Recently, a Global Hawk set a record for completing a 32.5 hour combat sortie.
Sustaining the Global Hawk’s presence in the battlespace takes quality maintainers like Senior Airman Marty to keep the ISR asset flying incredibly long sorties.
“The Airmen bring it every day. Around the Global Hawk, there is no mediocre day; every day is a new challenge.” said Master Sgt. Matthew. “We really require our people to think critically to get this aircraft up in the air. These guys are on a high-ops tempo and they perform at a high level.”
The tempo and upkeep of one of the most demanded assets in the area of responsibility not only keep the maintainers busy, it also illustrates how vital their mission is.
“Working on the Global Hawk is a lot of fun. I love to turn wrenches and enjoy the opportunities it provides me,” said Senior Airman Marty. “ISR is very important, it might not be as exciting as some other things going on out here, but it gives me a sense of pride.”