Learning to fly the Heron
The chance to fly a CU-170 Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Afghanistan was what prompted Captain Ken Jones, a pilot and Reservist with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron to take a one-year leave of absence from his civilian job as a commercial airline pilot in the United States and head to Suffield, Alberta for training.
"It is obvious that unmanned aircraft will be playing an increasingly important role in military aviation, and so I wanted to learn something about them," said Capt Jones. "I have been flying helicopters for the Canadian Forces for 20 years now, and also thought a temporary change of pace would be good for me."
Capt Jones has had a mix of civilian and military aviation experiences, and initially joined the military after working for several years as a civilian pilot.
"I began service in the Air Force though a hybrid Regular/Reserve Force program [the Reserve Officer Pilot Training Program]. It involved being selected and recruited by a reserve squadron, but with a five-year commitment that included the complete Regular Force officer and pilot training program, followed by postings to Regular Force units."
Although he is only in the beginning stages of his training on the Heron, Capt Jones said he's already noticed a few differences.
"Most noticeable to me is the greater difficultly in maintaining overall situational awareness. This is, of course, partly because I'm not on board, but also because of the nature of the instrumentation, and because of the nature of the Heron's job, which involves a lot of communication with others."
Lieutenant-Colonel Darrell Marleau, section head of 1 Canadian Air Division/Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters A3 UAV, said the Heron presents an exciting new air capability that the Canadian Forces has never had before.
"Unlike our previous unmanned aerial vehicle, the CU-161 Sperwer, the Heron can fly in excess of 24 hours," said LCol Marleau. "It also has a much more expanded sensor capability. The aircraft is two generations beyond the Sperwer."
Despite being known as an "unmanned" aerial vehicle, it actually takes a crew of six to get the Heron off the ground.
"It's a mixed blend of experts that are used to fly the Heron--not just Air Force occupations, but also experts from across the military spectrum: intelligence analysts, communications research technicians, pilots, and airborne electronic sensor operators. The crew works in extremely close cooperation with the Army, the primary recipient of the information."
Although Canada's Air Force has only been operating the Heron in Afghanistan for a few short months, the UAV is already proving to be invaluable.
"The product we're producing now from the Heron is in high demand," said LCol Marleau. "In addition to providing data to the Army, several NATO countries...are now routinely requesting our assistance in gathering surveillance data."
By Karen Christiuk - Canadian Armed Forces
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