Navy aviators set to start controlling unmanned aircraft from Jacksonville

Since the dawn of aviation, pilots have been able to rely on the simple method of looking through an aircraft’s window to determine the weather ahead.

That’s no longer an option for a relatively new squadron at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

This year a small group of aviation pioneers are ready to take the controls of drones as long as F-16s with wingspans the size of Boeing 757s as the future of maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is expanding.

The first 20 crew members of Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19) have passed through the training program and are now instructing others.

Soon they will be operating 48-foot-long MQ-4C Tritons with 131-foot wingspans from a building at Jacksonville NAS as the aircraft fly around the globe with nobody on board.

The first members of the Jacksonville-based squadron will be the inaugural group in the Navy to regularly control the drones, and they’ve developed a schoolhouse-type setting on base where others in the squadron are following their example.

“They’ll be the leaders within the squadron,” said Cmdr. Benje Stinespring, the commanding officer of VUP-19.

Those 20 leaders make up four crews that will work in shifts to complete each mission since the Tritons can stay in the air for 24 hours at a time.

Each crew includes an air vehicle operator, a tactical coordinator and two mission payload operators. They will operate the drones from a room that looks more like a computer lab than a cockpit.

The air vehicle operator is in charge of flying the aircraft, but the tactical coordinator has the freedom to direct where the aircraft needs to go. The coordinator also directs the efforts of the mission payload operators who control the surveillance equipment on the aircraft.

‘AVIATE, NAVIGATE, COMMUNICATE’

The Navy is following the Air Force’s lead in the world of large unmanned surveillance aircraft.The Tritons and the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawks are the same length and have the same wingspan. But despite having very similar capabilities, Stinespring said there is a major difference between the way the Navy and Air Force fill out their squadrons.“The Navy has elected to source the Triton community from within the maritime patrol and reconnaissance force,” Stinespring said. “So all of the air crew that are selected to come here have already completed at least one, sometimes multiple tours of duty.”The Air Force allows people to go straight from flight school to the unmanned aircraft program.Stinespring said the Navy’s policy of selecting experienced airmen allows them to tailor the syllabus to be more of a transitional program rather than having to teach the basics of the mission.“They take their previous mission experience and we teach them how to do those same things with the new gear,” said Lt. Cmdr. Phil Sautter, the officer in charge of the fleet integration team.The Navy started the team well before the squadron was established in October 2016. Sautter said they worked with the test community at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland to develop the training program and help […]