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Lt. Col. Kris Faught speaks to Marines with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 before the first RQ-21A Blackjack flight into Class D airspace over Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., March 21, 2016. The RQ-21A Blackjack system is modular, flexible and multi-mission capable, providing roll-on, roll-off transitions between land and maritime environments. Faught is the commanding officer of VMU-2. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Nicholas P. Baird/Released)

Photo by Pfc. Nicholas P. Baird

VMU-2 flies in RQ-21A in 'Class D' airspace

25 Mar 2016 | Pfc. Nicholas P. Baird 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing

Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 launched into a new era with its RQ-21A Blackjack flight into Class D airspace, over Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., March 21.

Commonly only allowed to fly in restricted airspace, VMU-2 now has the expanded ability to integrate RQ-21A flight operations with manned aircraft over this air station.

Cherry Point’s Class D airspace is defined by a circle around the air station with a 5-mile radius, from the ground up to 2,500 feet above the air station. This is airspace that is constantly under the control of Cherry Point air traffic control, and is frequently busy with military air traffic, as well as contracted commercial flights landing and departing the air station.

“Unmanned aerial systems like the Blackjack are commonly flown from forward sites that sometimes restrict our integration with other air players and events,” explained 1st Lt. Orlando J. Benedict, an unmanned aerial systems officer with the squadron. “Having the RQ-21A at MCAS Cherry Point fosters connections with the rest of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and allows for procedures that integrate manned and unmanned aviation to be solidified for the future.”

The Blackjack is designed to operate off a Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of ground forces deployed worldwide. UAS requirements have evolved and the Marine Corps has refined its concept of operations to incorporate rapidly emerging technologies in its unmanned systems.

The RQ-21A Blackjack can safeguard military bases and activities through a pattern of life identification and explosive device detection. It is equipped with an electro-optic/infrared payload that supports the real-time monitoring to provide indications and threat warnings, and its plug-and-play payloads enable multi-intelligence capability to support a broad range of operations.

“The Blackjack’s main purpose is to support aerial reconnaissance missions,” said Sgt. James E. Burch, a UAV operator with VMU-2. “With the new system, we will now be able to launch and land the UAV on a ship, where with other systems, more space would be required for recovery.”

Before the launch at Cherry Point was possible, VMU-2 traveled to various locations to include Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic, Marine Corps Auxiliary Field Bogue in N.C., MCAS Yuma, Ariz., and Marine Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. The ability to conduct flights at Cherry Point assists in a more fluid ability to maintain, test and hone specific skills required to operate the system without the added burden of travel to other sites.

The inaugural flight within Cherry Point’s Class D airspace allowed for another chance to integrate an unmanned aerial system with manned platforms while sharing the same airspace, explained Benedict.

The ability to do so is an intricate process involving FAA requirements that demand UAVs to garner an equivalent level of safety and aircraft separation, comparable to manned aircraft.

“Marine UAS are flown and treated like any other aircraft, the only exception is that the pilot at the controls is not physically located in the plane, but they are very much still in control,” said 1st Lt. Jeremy Eshleman, a UAS officer and weapons and tactics instructor with VMU-2.

With the great accomplishment of being able to operate the RQ-21A aboard MCAS Cherry Point, Eshleman provides one final thought explaining how air traffic controllers and the pilots maintain control of the UAS. “Our UAS flies a standard and predictable route under control of the tower while here at Cherry Point, and the pilot will perform any additional instructions as issued by the tower. In the rare event the pilot loses connection with the UAS and can no longer control it, it will only fly a predetermined route to a known location before landing at our site.”

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2nd Marine Aircraft Wing