Air to Air with a UAV Prototype

  • Nov 30, 2013 12:14pm GMT
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From the TVR Photography blog

It started with a phone call one could only dream of receiving. “We need you to shoot a UAV. Can’t tell you what kind or where, but we need it done by the end of the week. Are you in?” Next thing I knew I was on flight to Southern California.

After picking up the rental car it was a quick hop over the San Bernadino Mountain Range to Apple Valley Airport. There I met UAV pilot and aerobatic competitor Tim Just along with legendary air show performer Wayne Handley. Just prior to dinner our roundhouse briefing enabled me to meet other members of the team like Mark Sutherlin, and Scott Berry of General Atomics.

The next morning, Just, Handley and I flew a modified Cessna 210 to a little known airport in the Antelope Valley, the same basin where aviation history had been made at Edwards Air Force Base and Palmdale’s Skunk Works.

With operations beginning in 1942, Grey Butte Airfield was established as a satellite airport for Victorville AAF and was used to train more than 30,000 pilots, eventually becoming a bombardier school. Marine crews based at MCAS Mojave would later use Grey Butte #4, as it was referred to on the Los Angeles sectionals of that time period, for carrier landing practice from 1944-45. By 1950, the airfield was abandoned by the military and briefly utilized as a civilian airfield. At some point between 1950 and 1960, the Los Angeles sectional charts finally acknowledged the airport as abandoned.

At some point in the early 1960’s two pilots, Al Adolph and Harry Bernier along with a mechanic operated a Borate air tanker operation from Grey Butte flying a converted TBM. Bored during the downtime, they devised a means of waterskiing along a nearby man-made reservoir using a station wagon. By 1964 Grey Butte was once again marked as being an active airfield with three runways, the longest being 3,740’.

Around 1968, McDonnel Douglas Aircraft Company chose Grey Butte as an aircraft radar cross-section testing range. Working with the Rosamond Dry Lake outdoor radar test range operated by the USAF, Douglas chose to move its Microwave Lab operations to Grey Butte, which would be under 100% Douglas control.

By 1971, the USAF Tactical Pilotage Chart listed the airfield as “Abandoned” despite continued RCS use. In 1975 it was reportedly used to test the cross-section of a full-scale model of the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter. The RCS range was closed in the 1990’s and turned over to General Atomics in 2001 for unmanned aerial vehicle flight-testing.

It was this little bit of history that gave me a subtle hint as to what was in store. Upon landing at Grey Butte, the folks at General Atomics were already hard at work on various Predator A and B platforms lined up on the taxiway. I kept thinking how cool this was gonna be. Do I get to shoot the slightly larger turbine model or what has become the icon of the UAV world, the original Predator, better known as the MQ-1?