FORT DRUM, New York – When the commander of the New York Army National Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team needs intelligence on the enemy, he turns to the Unmanned Aerial System platoon of Delta Company of the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion for an eye in the sky.
The platoon operates the brigade's RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aerial system, small remotely controlled aircraft that launch from a towed catapult and land within 170 feet.
The aircraft may be small – just over 11 feet long – but it takes skill to fly, so 12 of Delta's UAS platoon Soldiers honed their skills while getting some long overdue flight and maintenance experience with the Shadow during annual training at Fort Drum in July.
"We need to maintain currency and proficiency so we can be called to any incident," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Strong, a UAS maintenance team leader in the company. "We have simulators, but nothing beats doing the real thing."
Once airborne, the Shadow is capable of up to six hours of flight time providing live imagery directly to the 27th brigade Tactical Operations Center.
The arrival of COVID-19 earlier this year threw a wrench in the unit's training plans, Strong said.
Normally, the Soldiers are able to fly multiple times per year. But Delta Company's Shadows have been grounded for months as the unit conducted virtual drills in accordance with the pandemic's social distancing mandates.
"It's been really difficult because people haven't been able to get hands-on much this year," said Strong. "Normally, we'll come up to Fort Drum in April, May, June, July and August, for a week or two so people can stay current and maintain their flight proficiency."
In addition to the unforeseen challenges that COVID-19 presented to mission readiness, other variables have prevented the UAS operators from pursuing their required flight time.
The Shadow is launched from a vehicle-towed pneumatic catapult. As a fair-weather aircraft, it is only able to fly in specific conditions. For much of the unit's annual training, strong winds and rainstorms kept the Shadows grounded.
Maintaining operator proficiency is critical for the rapid deployment of the UAS platoon. Though the Shadow was designed with the battlefield as its main focus, there are many domestic situations that benefit from the intelligence and imagery provided by the Shadow, Strong said.
"I participated in California where we assisted in forest fire reconnaissance," he said.
"Hopefully, in the future we can help with flood damage assessments and stuff like that throughout New York State. So it's important for us to maintain our currency so we can actually do things like that," Strong said.
"It takes a lot a lot of skill and determination to be able to do this job," said Pvt. Colin Pare, an unmanned aerial systems operator. "You need to focus on a lot of small things. You need to just be meticulous and knowledgeable."
Pare, 18, and right out of training, is the unit's newest Soldier.
"My training was about four months long, but I got the ropes fairly quickly and realized what I could do," Pare said.