It may be an overcast morning with lurking thunderstorms but that doesn’t stop a handful of young Hinds Community College aviators from crowding outside an aircraft hangar at the John Bell Williams Airport in Bolton.
They are student pilots but today their feet will never leave the ground.
The small airfield has been literally buzzing with excitement since last summer when the college revamped its aviation technology program to include flight training for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Commonly known as UAVs or drones, these miniature aircraft are flown remotely by crews on the ground, often times thousands of miles away from the actual aircraft. The technology can be used to hunt down terrorists overseas or monitor crops or levees closer to home.
While many aviation programs are getting on the UAV bandwagon, Hinds is one of the few schools that has “strictly hands on” pilot training says Hinds aviation department chair Randy Pearcey.
“We’re actually expanding the program,” said Pearcey. “We have sent off to make it into a complete two-year associate of applied sciences degree and should have that approved by April.”
UAV training is three-pronged with applications in maintenance, information technology and flying. Pearcey says he hopes to eventually entice a UAV company to open up a branch at the airfield that could employ future students.
Another anticipation for Hinds is the FAA’s decision to open up the U.S. air space in 2015 to more unmanned aerial systems. This could create a gold rush of job opportunities said Hinds flight instructor Dennis Lott.
“It is so underdeveloped right now,” Lott said. He has two sons that work in the UAV industry, one in Afghanistan and the other in California. “I knew when these boys wanted to do this they were gonna leave and go everywhere but Mississippi.”
The student pilots practice hand launching a massive foam UAV trainer from the wet runway. The wings and assembly are held together by rubber bands so it can easily come apart in a crash with minimal damage. A small high-resolution camera is mounted on the nose and the whole drone whines like a Weed Eater.
One of the pilots ribs another: “You throw UAVs like a girl!”
Early drones were developed by the British and German military during World War II and were little more than flying bombs. The U.S.-made Ryan Firebee could be launched and controlled from conventional aircraft and flew thousands of reconnaissance missions during the Cold War.
Since 9/11, the Pentagon has reportedly spent $30 billion on drones like the General Atomics-made Predator. With a $4 million price tag, one Predator costs significantly less than a fighter plane and can support recon or special forces operations without needing live troops on the ground.
In a classroom connected to the hangar, a group of students practice flying on a bank of computer simulators.
Luke Evans has had his private pilot license for a week and the UAV courses are helping him add to his career marketability.
Flying on a computer disorients him. “I think its easier to fly full scale. You have that seat of the pants feel,” he said. “You can look out the window.”
Evans circles his trainer around the simulated airfield and lands gently and just a bit off center. “On the computer you still have to judge your distance and turns. It just takes practice,” he said.
“They have to have the additional skill set of being able to sit here in a chair and fly something over there that they can’t even see,” Lott said.
In addition to the simulators, Evans and the other students also learn to fly microlight radio controlled aircraft and then larger models that you can find at any hobby store.
Many of the new military-style video games like Ubisoft’s “Ghost Recon” have incorporated UAV flying in missions and Lott said the hand and eye coordination training is perfect for pilots.
Vicksburg trucker Billy Cook spent six years as a B-52 crew chief and started UAV training so he could get out of the rig and back into a cockpit. The domestic potential for UAV is an untapped resource, he said.
“Farmers can fly the 80 acres and check on their crops without having to leave the house,” he said, “I don’t see why they can’t fly one through a hurricane. If they lose one it’s just money. They aren’t losing any lives.”
“Law enforcement will love this particular technology,” said student pilot and Canton police officer Windell Blount. “The Quadcopter can hover into places where they can’t go like a hostage situation. We can locate escapees and do sting operations and drug enforcement.”