Featured News

Marines' littlest eye in the sky takes flight in Iraq;

4 Aug 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Cpl. Mel W. Plummer has got a whopper of a story to tell at his high school reunion.

His former high school class president won't be able to match it.  Here it is.  He flew airplanes on combat missions in Iraq.  He flew so low, he could see the enemy's face right before a big attack.  He did it all with a plane that was unarmed and unmanned.

That's right.  Plummer never left the ground. 

Plummer, a 23-year-old from Stevens Point, Wis., turned a child-like fascination for model airplanes and the mysteries of flight into the best thing going for the grunt on the ground.  He's a pilot, the latest in unmanned aerial vehicle flight to get a better picture of the enemy on the other side of the battlefield.

Technically, it's called a Small Unit Remote Scouting System.  The cool kids in class just call it Dragoneye.

Plummer's flown the six-pound airframe with a 45-inch wingspan in places other pilots wouldn't dare to fly.  He's been flying for the Marine Corps since February. 

"None of the people I graduated high school with or many of the Marines I know can say they operate an ... unmanned aerial vehicle," Plummer said.  "The Dragoneye hasn't been in use that long but it already has an interesting history."

During Operation Iraqi Freedom the UAV was used to scout out areas for future attacks and raids.

This year, its droning engine still sends fear into the enemy.  They know it's a sign that Marines are watching and likely about to strike.

Plummer likes to fly at low altitudes adding that the plan can fly much higher, where it affords better photo resolution.

Dragoneye is small enough to be carried into the field inside a pack.  It's assembled by snapping it together, a process that takes moments.  The batteries offer a short duration flight.  Plummer and his fellow UAV pilots solve this problem by packing plenty of the lithium batteries the plane requires.

"We took a course in Twentynine Palms, California and then had some refresher training at Camp Fallujah," Plummer explained.  "I started using the Dragoneye then and am enjoying it a lot.  It's pretty high-speed." 

Dragoneye sports two digital cameras on the belly of the plane to record images during flight.  The operator on the ground sees what the cameras see in real time through a laptop computer and with just a click of a button images can be captured.

"If the battalion is planning a raid on an area, we can scout it out beforehand, check out points of origin for mortar attacks and get a good view of the area," Plummer explained.  "With the cameras we can even see vehicles and people walking around."

Keeping the tiny plane aloft is actually the easiest part.  It's the going up and coming down when Plummer earns his pay.

"This is a really smart system," he explained.  "We can program a flight path and the plane does all the work.  We hit a button and it comes back to us if we need it to.  It's the takeoffs and landings we have to be careful about."

Marines have to stretch a 30-foot length of bungee cord hooked to the plane to launch it into the sky.  When the internal sensors of the plane register a certain amount of wind pressure the motors automatically engage, lifting the UAV into flight. 

It doesn't come without risk to the aircraft and operators.  The launching cord has caused problems for the Marines in the past however.  Plummer said he witnessed one launch when the cord slipped and snapped back, striking a Marine in the groin.

"That will put you on the ground, believe me," he explained.  "We're always in full protective gear when we launch it in case something doesn't go right."

Landings also can serve as a problem for the pilots and the Dragoneye.  The plane is difficult to navigate in tight areas.  That makes an urban landing almost impossible.

"We were in Kharma using the UAV and had to launch and land it from an alley," Plummer recalled.  "If you don't do it right the plane can smack right into a building which would ruin it.  I don't know how we managed to land it out there.  I'll just say I'm a lucky guy."

When it's airborne, the UAV only requires one man to keep track of its progress in the air.  Although the plane can be controlled manually from the laptop's ground control station, Plummer prefers to let the plane do most of the work while he keeps attentive on what the plane sees and his surroundings.

"I can't keep all my attention on what's going on with the plane," Plummer said.  "I have to keep alert around me because I'm still in hostile territory."

Plummer isn't the only fan of the smallest reconnaissance tool in the battalion's arsenal.

"The biggest asset we've found for the Dragoneye is getting a real-time view of an area prior to launching a mission," said 1st Lt. Edward M. Trainor, the executive officer for Company F, from Boiling Springs, Pa. "It's great to have it here."