U-2 flies post-fire mission for damage assessment in California

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Russell Wicke
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs
A U-2 Dragon Lady flew a final sortie Oct. 31 to assess the aftermath of the Southern California wildfires, marking the end of a busy seven days for the reconnaissance aircraft at Beale AFB.

The last flight provided photos for damage-assessment to help civil authorities determine what needs to be done for relief and recovery efforts, said Col. Bob Piacine, Air Combat Command deputy director of intelligence.

Throughout the crisis, the U-2 and RQ-4 Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew multiple sorties and provided more than 500 photos in support of the Southern California wildfires, according to Col. Anthony Dominice, 480th Intelligence Wing vice commander. Air Combat Command stepped up to assist after civil authorities requested the assets from U.S. Northern Command at Peterson AFB, Colo. NORTHCOM is a military organization designed to execute homeland defense and civil support missions.

The sorties marked the first mission flown domestically for the Global Hawk and just another notch in the belt for the veteran U-2, which provided damage assessment for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 as well as other domestic emergencies.

ACC's contribution to the relief effort involved mass coordination between NORTHCOM, the 480th Intelligence Wing here, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, and the Air National Guard's 234th Intelligence Squadron at Beale. The result of the effort was a simple product: high-altitude photos to be used by firefighting officials in California.

After aircraft from the 9th RW captured images from the air, data flowed electronically to the 480th IW. The analysts there turned the data into photos, assessed them and sent the still photos to NORTHCOM and the California Emergency Operations Center. Colonel Piacine said preparing the images for civil authorities required legal review to protect the rights and privacy of U.S. citizens.

According to Lt. Col. Rachel McCaffrey, 9th Intelligence Squadron commander at Beale, there's a process in place to prevent DoD assets from collecting intelligence on American citizens. In order to make the Global Hawk and U-2 missions possible, specific guidelines were required stating the purpose and limitations.

"We learned a lot about releasability issues," she said. "Normally we're involved in , but this was a chance to help the American people in a very tangible way."

Damage assessment, however, was just a part of what these reconnaissance aircraft contributed. Unlike Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, sorties were being flown as it happened to provide a tool used to determine how to fight the fires. "This was a more dynamic scenario because we were involved in the operational phase," said Colonel Piacine. "Our imagery was used by the firefighting commanders to determine the best tactics to fight the fires."

The first mission was flown Oct. 24 by the U-2 using high-resolution conventional photography, which requires several hours to process. The next day the Global Hawk began flying from Beale as well, producing digital images that were downloaded as they were taken from 60,000 feet. Together the aircraft and analysts teams provided support for 15 different wildfires and identified fire lines and hotspots that could not be assessed from the ground, stated Colonel Dominice.

Advantages of the Global Hawk include images in near real time and infrared sensors that can produce a clear image despite smoke and darkness of night, said Brig. Gen. James Poss, Air Combat Command director of intelligence. Furthermore, because it's unmanned, it can remain airborne for longer periods: about 20 hours.

The Global Hawk and U-2 were originally designed for locating military targets overseas. Even now the Global Hawk is being used in Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In fact, pilots who flew the unmanned aerial vehicle from the ground at Beale were just a few steps away from pilots flying them in Afghanistan. It is technology of this kind that proved useful in wildfire crises, said Colonel Piacine.

"I worked through Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, where we used the U-2," he said, "and the work we did then paid off." When the Air Force was asked to support the Southern California firefighting effort ACC and the 1st Air Force had the tactics, techniques and procedures in place to quickly respond to the request from civil authorities." The result, said Colonel Piacine, was a more comprehensive (and faster) contribution.

According to General Poss, flexibility of the Air Force has made this novelty possible. "This just shows how our Air Force is willing to do anything, anytime to help our fellow Americans in time of need," he said.