A French air force Harfang unmanned vehicle has been operating from Sigonella air base since Aug. 25, but is unable to meet huge demand for Libya reconnaissance data. (French AF photo)
September 9, 2011 defense-unmanned.com
(Source: French air force; dated Aug. 31, web-posted Sept. 1, 2011)
(Issued in French only; unofficial translation by defense-aerospace.com)
SIGONELLA, Sicily --- On Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 7:00 p.m., the French air force Harfang drone lands on the runway at the Italian base in Sigonella, Sicily, having successfully carried out its first operational mission, lasting 18 hours, over Libyan territory. Ground engineers of the UAV squadron 1/33 "Belfort" return the aircraft to its hangar in order to prepare for the next sortie.
Two weeks earlier, the head of the French detachment in Sigonella had welcomed twenty-five new ‘pilots’ to the drone squadron and quickly integrated them with their colleagues who fly the five Rafale combat aircraft also deployed there since the beginning of July.
In order to meet operational deadlines, the technical team juggled to organize their installation into the operational area. As soon as the inflatable hangar was completed, engine tests began. "All is well, it’s running like clockwork,” said Captain C., Chief Technical Officer of the 1/33 squadron.
Flight personnel, in the meantime, working closely with Italian authorities, defined the areas of Italian airspace through which the UAV would fly to reach Libya. Procedures are strict, particularly during transits near Catania airport, located only 25 km northeast of Sigonella, and through Maltese airspace.
In parallel, flight operations staff, intelligence officers and photo analysts also worked to assimilate the rules for drone operations in operations area. They also supported the information systems and communications team so that dedicated networks could be stood up as fast as possible.
Using precise geographical coordinates provided by four geographers of the 28th Topography Regiment based in Haguenau, Eastern France, mechanics and the head of flight operations programmed the system to allow automatic takeoff and landing of the aircraft.
The engineers can then uplink to the drone's ground station, using both direct links, via the antenna LOS positioned next to the control station, and indirect links, via a geostationary satellite to overcome terrain masking and range limitations, that must be tested.
On August 20, twelve days after the arrival of the squadron personnel, the Italian commander of the Sigonella base, together with the air traffic control commander, and an Italian drone expert from the HQ staff, who flew in especially for the occasion, joined the French team to monitor the first on-site takeoff of the Harfang.
The flight operator at the controls carries out the first tests of the system. By radio, he asked the engineer, positioned near the drone, if he can get started. The engine starts, the aircraft begins taxiing. Air traffic controllers clear the operator to taxi to the takeoff point. Onlookers are amazed to see the aircraft, without no pilot on board, behaving like any other aircraft.
As local airspace is highly segregated, the drone had to wait until commercial airliners had landed in Catania.
A few minutes later, Italian authorities in attendance at the ground control station observed with interest the automatic take-off phase, and the ease with which the operator takes the control of the aircraft once it is airborne.
At the same time, 60 kilometers north of Sigonella, the Etna volcano wakes up, and its mushroom-shaped cloud offers a great opportunity to test the Harfang’s on-board MOSP camera under very exacting conditions. The aircraft took a series of photographs in both IR and visible spectrum of this awe-inspiring phenomenon before returning to its departure point.
Once aligned on the runway, the operator selects the automatic landing mode and, while he remains alert and ready to take back the controls, the drone lands by itself.
The French detachment then began preparations for the first operational sortie, which was scheduled for three days later. The delay is necessary for the NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC), located in Poggio Renatico, in northern Italy, to fully integrate Harfang into the range of reconnaissance and surveillance assets deployed by the informal coalition controlling Libyan airspace.
The real- transmission of video from the drone to the ground operations center is one of the keys to the success of the mission, because it enables CAOC to monitor and to conduct air operations in real-time.
Tuesday, August 23, at 11 p.m., the aircraft is pushed out of its hangar as its two crews, each comprising a flight operator, an intelligence officer and a photo analyst, arrive at the briefing room.
Radio contact is established with the French air force E-3F AWACS aircraft which was on duty and which handles all air assets in theater. The mission begins as scheduled.
The command center is somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data on the ground situation transmitted by the drone. However, the information is so useful that, after many hours over Libyan territory, the command post requested a three-hour extension of the mission. This could have been even longer but, as Capt. D, one of the ‘pilots’, explained, “we must conserve fuel as we will use more on the return leg, when we’ll face relatively strong headwinds.”
By this time, the aircraft has been in the air for over 14 hours, and the relief crew begins to bring it back to base in Sicily, which entails a long flight over the sea. By the time it lands, Harfang’s first operational mission over Libya will have lasted 18 hours.
The French air force has also maintained UAV detachments in Afghanistan for the past two and a half years.