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Lance Cpl. Philip Buttiens leans over one of the two tail fins on an RQ-2B Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle to return a wrench to his toolbox at Al Taqaddum, Iraq, May 2, while disconnecting the engine from the plane. The Pioneer is capable of flying up to 15,000 feet and 100 miles away, being controlled only by radio frequencies from a ground control station designed like a cockpit of a full-scale aircraft. Buttiens is an UAV mechanic with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, Marine Air Control Group 38 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. He is a 21-year-old native of New Town, Pa.

Photo by Lance Cpl. James B. Hoke

Pioneer scouts way ahead, increases safety for followers

27 Nov 2007 | Lance Cpl. James B. Hoke

Another day on the sand-bitten streets of a small town in Iraq lapsed for the passersby, who carelessly walked to and from their normal routine tasks. A few insurgents entered the town, choosing it as their safe haven while preparing their next strike against the U.S. service members.

Cruising just below its ceiling at approximately 15,000 feet, a small unmanned aerial vehicle hovered over the dusty community just beyond earshot, as it tracked the insurgents to their current location with real-time video and relayed the information to the people who could do something about it.

Used for basic reconnaissance with missions ranging from collecting data for battle damage assessments to calling in air support as a forward observer, the RQ-2B Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle flies where it may be a hazard for manned aircraft.

"The RQ-2B Pioneer is a miniature, high-wing, light aircraft that is normally piloted by radio frequencies from ground control stations," said Staff Sgt. Lilia A. Garcia, avionics staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, Marine Air Control Group 38 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "It is able to operate behind enemy lines with very low detection."

Flying at an average cruise speed of 75 mph, the aircraft is controlled by a ground control station that is made like the cockpit from a regular manned aircraft with all of the gauges that are required to keep it aloft.

"You have an internal pilot and a payload operator," said Sgt. Matthew M. Nation, internal operator, VMU-2. "The internal pilot flies the aircraft and does all of the normal functions a pilot would do to ensure it stays flying.

"The payload operator is operating the camera throughout the flight," the 24-year-old native of Gig Harbor, Wash., continued. "The pilot has to make sure he is properly coordinating with other aircraft in the area, so that we stay out of everyone's way and everyone knows where we are at all times. He also has to give a stable platform for the camera to look at things, so we can get good imagery and pictures."

Developed in 1984, the Pioneer was accepted for service 20 years ago and delivered to the Marines Corps a year later in July 1987.

"With this aircraft, you are taking the loss of life out of the equation," said Staff Sgt. Ronald L. Wolfe, internal operator, VMU-2. "We pretty much act as forward observers. Not so much now, but especially (two years ago). We were seeing what was over the hill, calling in artillery on targets before our guys ever moved over the line of departure.

"If our plane gets shot down, no one gets killed," the 27-year-old native of Carlisle, Pa., added. "We still have video telemetry and everything because it is still fed through the system. But if you have an (AV-8B) Harrier or an (AH-1W Super) Cobra -- a manned aircraft -- going out, doing the same thing, and getting shot down, you lose a whole crew."

According to Wolfe, the importance of this aircraft for the Marine Corps is immeasurable, as it supports the units on the ground and in the air.

"We view Iraqis, scan roads and make sure they are clear," said Wolfe, a graduate of Carlisle Area High School. "We will look at a target prior to aircraft strikes. We do a lot of reconnaissance, which is primarily our job. We give a good battle damage assessment.

"If they blow up a target, they want to make sure it was hit properly and that they hit the right target," he added. "A lot of ground units, tanks, tracks, infantry and artillery use it, as well. They want to know what kind of cars are in the area. They want to know how many people are hanging out where they are going. They want to know the fastest way to get there."

Capable of flying only a few hours without landing or refueling, the Pioneer used to be considered a hard aircraft for controllers to obtain flight hours on.

"It is amazing looking back over the past 10 years," said Nation, a graduate of Peninsula High School. "In the (United) States before we started deploying, we were allotted 150 to 250 hours a year. In one six-month deployment out here, we've flown three to 4,000 hours.

"You used to get a plaque for flying over 100 hours," he added. "Staff Sgt. Wolfe flew over 100 hours in 13 days. It used to be a milestone in your career if you reached 100 hours. Now, it's more like 1,000 hours."

Although the Pioneer has accumulated several records of 'firsts' in the past 20 years, one that stands out in the history books more than others is the fact that there are only two squadrons in the Marine Corps that operate it.

"We are out here for seven months and then back in the states for five months and then back out here for another seven months," said Nation. "It's tough for any unit to continually put out the product that we do and to deploy like this."

However, most of the Marines put the deployments behind them, as they like the fact that this unmanned aerial vehicle helps them discover some of the traps that were set to hurt their brothers in arms.

"We are adding another element to the aviation side of the Marine Corps that wasn't there 40 years ago," concluded Nation. "We can look and see what we couldn't before, and it's a good feeling to know that. The video that we provide to the units around here is the biggest asset right now, as we can actually follow someone right back to their house and say, 'This is where the bad guys are.'"
3rd Marine Aircraft Wing