I live maybe 20 miles as the crow flies from Fort Pickett, a Virginia National Guard base that is used by military and law enforcement agencies, including Navy SEALs, the Marines, the Air Force and Army Special Forces, Canadians, Secret Service, the FBI and Virginia State Police. It’s fairly common to hear the distinctive sounds of military aircraft flying about, such as the muffled roar of Blackhawks, the vibrating thunder of Sea Stallions and the less frequent “whup, whup” of the old, Vietnam-era Hueys.
So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I heard a chopper noise I couldn’t identify. I looked up and maybe 150 feet off the ground was a light grey helicopter that seemed to hover over my property. It was clearly marked “NAVY” and was the size of a ubiquitous civilian Sky Ranger but with one big difference: This aircraft had no cockpit and no pilot.
Weirded out, I went to Wikipedia, which told me it was a Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout, a drone helicopter that has been in Naval service since 2002. Drone aircraft have been the coming thing in aerial weaponry for some time.
Drones have also been increasingly controversial as the Obama administration finds them useful weapons against suspected terrorists. They have reportedly been responsible for more than a thousand deaths since 2004, including strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Closer to home, the drone could do much to reshape Virginia’s economy. The state has two major combat airbases, Langley Air Force Base in Hampton and Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. For years, they have based the hottest combat aircraft, from F-15 Eagles and F-14 Tomcats and more recently F-18 Hornets and F-22 Raptors.
Oceana is responsible for 11,000 jobs in Tidewater and is slated to receive the new F-35C Joint Strike Fighters starting around 2018. Yet there have been clouds forming over Oceana for some time. Sprawl has grown up in areas around the air base that were rural farmland back in World War II. Pilots have to get past apartment blocks and rows of high-rise tourist hotels to reach the Atlantic a few miles away.
On April 6, an F-18 crashed into some apartments in Virginia Beach and miraculously killed no one. In 1977, as a newspaper reporter, I saw the aftermath of an F-14 accident that wasn’t so lucky. The plane burst into flame as it took off and the pilot and radar officer, fearing they’d slam into a beachfront hotel, sacrificed their lives by turning their hurtling jet onto the tarmac.
Oceana survived the latest BRAC review, although there were attempts to move its instruction operations to more remote Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Most F-18 pilots get their basic instruction at an airbase far away in the farmland valley of the central California. Attempts by the Navy department to locate an Outlying Landing Field (OLF) for simulated carrier landings near Oceana in northeastern North Carolina were shot down by local opposition, a dynamic that is being replicated at other proposed locations near Franklin.
One trend seems certain. Unmanned drones will continue to replace manned aircraft. As they do, the demands in terms of cost and local support upon land-based crews and bases will be reduced. That’s good news for the defense budget but bad news for localities that have depended on air bases for jobs for decades. To be sure, Hampton Roads is already less dependent upon the military economically than it has been.
Drones may not have the glamor of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” but they hold many advantages, too. There is plenty of debate about drones for other reasons. Left-wing commentator Rachel Maddow and others have said that using drones rather than piloted aircraft raises ethical questions because they can dehumanize the effects that U.S.-orchestrated combat has on others. Perhaps, but I am old enough to remember when equally-pilotless ICBMs aimed at the Soviet Union replaced many piloted B-52s. They couldn’t be recalled once launched, but they would get the job done faster and more cheaply. Luckily they weren’t used.
Anyway, the MQ-8 Fire Scout over my backyard was something of a wakeup call. I guess I’ll be seeing a bit more of them.
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