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Aircraft, Air Force Base: a Match Made on Earth, Enjoyed in the Heavens

Aircraft, Air Force Base: a Match Made on Earth, Enjoyed in the Heavens
Chico gets a vivid reminder that it has an Air Force base to the south when an onyx-colored U-2 swings by the municipal airport for occasional touch-and-goes.

Some people exhilarate in the wash of sound and power as the manned spy plane skims the runway and then thunders upward and away, back to Beale AFB.

By 2012, that scenario could become a distant memory, as the technology of the U-2 is bumped by the next-worldly, unmanned Global Hawk, which now also flies from Beale, outside of Marysville.

Much heralded, the Global Hawk is a remotely piloted aircraft that specializes in high-altitude photography for intelligence gathering. Beale has been home for other intelligence-gathering aircraft, including all the nation's U-2s. It was previously home to the now-grounded supersonic SR-71 Blackbird.

Cruising at 60,000 feet and at speeds of 360-400 mph, the Global Hawk can fly for about 30 hours, its camera zooming to the ground and relaying digital photographs nearly instantaneously.

But the technology doesn't yet allow for capturing extreme details, according to Lt. Col. J. Scott Winstead, the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron commander and a Global Hawk pilot.

But that's just around the corner.

Winstead gave a group of Chico business leaders a tour of the Global Hawk facilities at Beale recently. Beale also hosts the Global Hawk training programs.

While its war-time uses are very much in the forefront, the government sees other functions for the aircraft, including gauging wildfires and natural disasters, and researching global warming.

Tucked into a hangar at Beale, the Global Hawk stands about 15 feet high, with its whale-bulge forehead home to high technology and cameras. An eye-like camera lens tips the nose, and sensors line the belly. Made of extra-light composite material, Global Hawk wings span 116 feet and its body reaches 44 feet.

Operational Global Hawks fly from Beale, while most testing of the aircraft occurs at Edwards AFB in the Mojave Desert, not far from contractor Northrop Grumman's plant in Palmdale.

In July, a first occurred, as the Global Hawk flew from Beale to Andersen AFB in Guam under Beale-only support.

"We're blazing the trail," said Beale commander Brig. Gen. H.D. Polumbo Jr.

Not only technology, but the human factor differentiate the U-2 and Global Hawk. Because the U-2 is manned, its capability is only as functional as its pilot's endurance. Although well-trained and athletic, pressure suit and helmet-clad U-2 pilots fly missions of about 10 hours.

In contrast, guided remotely with autonomous technology, the Global Hawk's only restraints are fuel and technology, pushing the aircraft's capabilities much further. Flights as long as 35 hours have been recorded.

"The U-2 is more capable than the Global Hawk right now, but the next Global Hawk will be much more," Beale's Polumbo said, talking about the photographic abilities.

Commands bounce from Beale's operations antennas to a variety of space-rooted satellites and then to the Global Hawk's navigational system. Its digital photos find a similar route back home.

Programmed to take off and fly automatically, the Global Hawk usually returns to human control as it closes in on a target.

Global Hawk's value is keeping personnel safely on the ground, while transmitting high-quality digital photographs almost instantly via satellites.

Allowing analysts real-time views of ground activity, the Global Hawk is able to sweep an area with radar for detection of movement and then zoom in for digital photographs. The aircraft can be redirected to a site for a series of clarifying swipes of the cameras.

Although two of four prototype Global Hawks have crashed, Winstead offered a litany of examples in which the aircraft earned military respect in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pulled into operation more quickly than Northrop Grumman intended because of military actions in Iraq, operating the Global Hawk was learning on the go, Winstead noted.

Its worth has been proven many times, said Winstead. When an array of sites were suspected of terrorist activity, Global Hawk's photographs highlighted movement in one. Photograph analysts detected human presence and forces were able to wipe out the site, he said.

In Iraq, a force of wooden decoy tanks was identified by Global Hawk, which was also able to isolate the real tanks for a successful attack, Winstead said.

As sophisticated as the Global Hawk is, the U-2 still offers superior photographs with the highest resolution, according to Winstead. Chemical, "wet film" development is used.

But the government believes the Global Hawk's technology will prevail, ending the U-2's reign by about 2012, Winstead said.

By 2015, about 50 Global Hawks are expected to be flying, and will be deployed to other locations around the world as ground equipment and personnel are moved in.

Winstead said the Air Force is focusing its Global Hawk training program on Beale, which in 2005 was one of the air bases rumored to possibly be closed in the last round of facility trimming.

Having the future of the Global Hawk linked to the base and an outpouring of community and regional support could have played a role in keeping the base off the closure list.

According to a news release on Beale's Web site, limited pilot training with the Global Hawk has occurred, but most of the flights have been under the control of instructors.

Beale expects its Global Hawk training classes to jump from 24 students to 36 per year, and to 48 by 2009, the Web site notes.

Remotely piloted aircraft were used recently to examine a Santa Barbara County fire in a cooperative effort between the U.S. Forest Service and NASA.

Because the smoke was so thick and the fire so remote, information about the fire was impossible to get with the unaided eye.

The aircraft was able to provide fire control personnel with images of where the fire was, while reducing the risk to personnel.

By: Laura Urseny - Staff Writer
Staff writer Laura Urseny can be reached at 896-7756 or

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