News>AFNORTH pilot comes back down to earth with new airframe
Maj. Dawn Junk, Domestic Operations chief for Air Forces Northern, and Tech. Sgt. Mike DeWitt, a sensor operator from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., train on an MQ-1 Predator simulator at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. Major Junk is now certified to pilot the unmanned platform, which could potentially help the command save more lives and conduct operations more efficiently during disaster recovery efforts. (Courtesy photo)
Maj. Dawn Junk, Domestic Operations chief for Air Forces Northern, recently learned how to pilot the MQ-1 Predator, which is pictured here. The unmanned platform could potentially help the command save more lives and conduct operations more efficiently during disaster recovery efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Gruenwald)
Maj. Dawn Junk, Domestic Operations chief for Air Forces Northern, and Tech. Sgt. Mike DeWitt, a sensor operator from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., pause for a photo during MQ-1 Predator training at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. Major Junk is now certified to pilot the unmanned platform, which could potentially help the command save more lives and conduct operations more efficiently during disaster recovery efforts. (Courtesy photo)
3/2/2012 - TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- A pilot who once flew C-21s and C-130s has traded her cockpit 30,000 feet above sea level for a room on the ground with a bunch of screens.
Maj. Dawn Junk, Domestic Operations chief for Air Forces Northern (AFNORTH), recently completed MQ-1 Predator training, becoming only the second person in the command with certification on a remote piloted aircraft (RPA).
"In our Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) mission, we augment emergency management efforts such as firefighting and disaster recovery," Major Junk said. "We could significantly benefit from the drone's ability to have 'eyes' on the scene quickly and efficiently."
Armed with this information, she approached her leadership to find out how she could herself become a drone-trained pilot.
Just a couple of weeks after her initial inquiry, Major Junk was on her way to March Air Reserve Base, Calif., where she spent nine weeks with the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing learning how to operate the Predator.
Now, a fresh graduate, she will partner with Mark Lilly, a retired MQ-1 pilot with AFNORTH's Operations directorate, to design and implement an RPA program for the command.
"Congress recently told the Federal Aviation Administration that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015," said Col. Mark Zechman, AFNORTH Operations deputy director. "This will increase the use of RPAs, and we will be called upon to foster the deployment and employment of the military side of this mission set. This will be a timely capability, especially in our role as the air component during DSCA events."
As for why Major Junk chose the Predator versus another traditional, manned aircraft with that "eyes-on" capability, the reasoning is simple: she said she wants to be on the leading edge of what she feels is the new air operations era.
"The Predator can provide up to 22 hours of 'eyes-on' time on a particular focus area without needing to land, and it can be piloted from several different locations," the major said. "The cost of that 22-hour mission is a fraction of the cost of traditional means which require a multitude of manned aircraft, crews, maintenance, logistics, bed-down locations and an abundance of fuel."
Unmanned platforms are able to conduct damage assessment missions in areas responders are unable to reach, and they provide that capability without putting people in harm's way. They can also save time by helping rescue and response officials determine their best courses of action after a disaster.
Having piloted manned aircraft her entire officer career, Major Junk quickly learned that the differences between the two types of airframes are varied and significant.
"The first difference is the virtual nature. With the Predator, you have to constantly remind yourself that you are the pilot in command of a multi-million dollar airframe - that it's not a video game, that it's not just a simulator," she said.
The second difference, according to the major, is the level of multi-tasking involved.
"In a manned platform, once you leave the earth, all of your problems typically are left behind. It's just you and your crew or you and your aircraft. No performance reports, no scheduling." Major Junk said. "With the Predator, you sit in a box, and people just come in and out of the room to talk to you about various issues - things you wouldn't have to deal with in an aircraft.
"If you are in an aircraft and there is an issue with any of your systems, you have to figure out how to fix it. With the Predator, you can call someone in to take care of it," she continued. "So now you're focused on flying an aircraft, not running into anything, staying on altitude and on airspeed, coordinating with folks on the ground as well as air traffic control, and searching for your target while surrounded by people either working on the Predator controls or asking you normal, everyday questions. It's a completely different level of multi-tasking."
The third difference comes along with the product the Predator produces - its live feed.
"You have to constantly remind yourself that anybody can view your feed after obtaining permission," Major Junk said. "So you always want to make sure you're good at what you're doing."
Since Tyndall Air Force Base isn't home to any Predators, the major will travel to March ARB once a month to maintain her proficiency. She'll also have the chance to operate drones in Afghanistan.
"Having a newly trained MQ-1 pilot in the command will have a great impact on our missions. As a pilot current on capabilities of the Air Force's RPA enterprise, Major Junk will bring credibility to AFNORTH as we move forward in employing the aircraft across our entire mission set," Colonel Zechman said.