WEST FORT HOOD — After two years of planning and more than a month of night missions, seeing the Gray Eagle operate in daylight was exciting, said Capt. Thomas Simpson.
As the commander of Echo Company, the Army’s third unit tasked with operating its latest unmanned aerial system, he said it was an involved, complicated process to get to Wednesday’s milestone — the first daytime landing of the Gray Eagle at Fort Hood.
“I’m excited, because I’ve seen young soldiers get the opportunity to step up and execute some firsts and some milestones,” Simpson said as he watched members of his nearly 128-soldier company work at Robert Gray Army Airfield.
Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, stood up in September under the training unit, 21st Cavalry Brigade, to become certified on the unmanned system.
No more units are scheduled to stand up for training once Echo Company is finished later this year, but Fort Hood is positioning itself be the Army’s post for training Gray Eagle units.
A pitch was sent to Congress by the previous III Corps commander, but it has not been acted on. Construction is under way at West Fort Hood for an unmanned system hangar and, pending spending cuts, a company headquarters could go up nearby.
The Gray Eagle system can conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, as well as attack operations. Similar to the Air Force’s Predator, the Army’s Gray Eagle has a 56-foot wingspan, an altitude of 25,000 feet and in ideal conditions, can fly for 24 hours. Each company operates about a dozen systems.
“They can do things you wouldn’t ask a manned aircraft to do,” Simpson said. “They offer a lot of capabilities to the fight.”
On Jan. 30, the company began flying night missions.
Once they reached 100 hours of incident-free flight time, 21st Cavalry Brigade trainers said the unit was ready for more complex daytime missions.
Fort Hood is the Army’s only co-use airfield, meaning the runway is used by commercial flights, military aircraft and now, unmanned aircraft.
Trace Crawford, airfield manager, said this means it takes a lot of planning and coordination to add the Gray Eagle training missions into the schedule.
“There is a focus on safety. ... Mission safety and safety to the local public was (a top priority) at every stage,” he said.
Because there are so many different aircraft operating in the airspace, there are also a lot of rules and regulations, Crawford said. The Gray Eagle, which is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, has specific flight paths, altitudes and time periods for operations.
It is restricted to Fort Hood airspace, avoiding populated areas, and can only pass over U.S. Highway 190 at certain times. Ground spotters watch each takeoff and landing and the system can’t operate around commercial aircraft.
The nighttime missions were to “ensure the process worked,” Crawford said. “Everybody is comfortable and that’s why we are starting to fly during the daylight hours.”
Soldiers will spend the next six months training on basic qualifications in the aircraft with 21st Cavalry, and will eventually conduct collective training, Simpson said.
The 21st Cavalry trained all three of the Army’s Gray Eagle companies using airspace at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Irwin, Calif. Now the training can be conducted at Fort Hood.
“It’s absolutely great to do this type of training operations,” said Col. Neil Hersey, 21st Cavalry Brigade commander. “Previously, we had to send soldiers away from their families. Now we have the capabilities to do it here at Fort Hood.”
The first company, Fox Company, is in the process of returning from a yearlong mission in Afghanistan, and the second is part of the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan.
The Army plans to equip each of its divisions’ combat aviation brigades with a Gray Eagle company, according to the Army Times.
Echo Company is expected to be moved to another division, since 1st Cavalry already has Fox, but no plans have been announced.