The war at home – Beale Air Force base plays important role in world’s conflicts
Following is the second in a two-part series about the regional role of Beale Air Force Base. Visit http://www.theunion.com on the Web to read the first installment.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are halfway around the world, but they are also being fought just over the ridge from Penn Valley.
Deep inside mobile trailers at Beale Air Force Base in Yuba County, men and women are gathering electronic and film surveillance from those countries and others and sending it back to field commanders as intelligence and targets, sometimes within minutes. The telecommunications system is ranked as the best in the Air Force, if not the entire U.S. military.
Utilizing the old but reliable U-2 spy plane with the new remotely controlled Global Hawk and Predator data takers, the Air Force beams photos and information to the 548th Intelligence squadron at Beale, which analyzes it on a huge bank of computers. Although the trailers are at Beale to be near the squadron, they can be broken down, shipped and set up anywhere in the world within 72 hours.
Col. Yu Lin Bingle runs the intelligence squadron “that is helping to save American lives and ending enemy lives every day.” The squadron is constantly mapping and targeting the war zones, “and we actually prepare the target coordinates for smart bombs.”
Bingle said there have been instances where spy planes have beamed information via satellite, and it was sent back to ground troops within two to three minutes. “It gives the field commander an extra set of eyes and ears,” Bingle said.
Beale is also home to one of several new units called the Deployable Ground Station that are spaced around the world. The station allows surveillance aircraft to tell combat planes where smart bombs should go.
U-2 still flying
The U-2 has been flying intelligence missions out of Beale since 1976. Some of them have digital capability, but Capt. Greg Hafner flies a version that has a 500-pound camera in the nose. The camera takes photos that are 6 feet long and 5 inches wide.
“It basically paints a picture of the terrain,” said Sgt. Alaina Frankenfield, and the camera compensates for the plane’s speed and the curvature of the earth.
In one flight, the camera can sweep all of Iraq, which is about the same size as California. Once Frankenfield’s squadron gets the film, it produces photos of the entire country within 18 hours.
Hafner flies above 70,000 feet and wears a custom space suit that he has to be helped into. The U-2 cockpit is extremely small, “and we can fly 10 to 12 hours, so it’s a long time in the cockpit,” Hafner said.
The U-2 flies extremely high to avoid missiles but it does not fly fast, Hafner said. Generally, he flies in a steady cruise climb at about 400 mph. The plane’s lengthy wing span gives it gliding capabilities that let it perform and land at extremely low speeds.
Landing is the hardest thing to do in a U-2 because the landing wheels are not spread out from the body. The angle of the cockpit does not allow pilots to see the runway at the last minute, so they have to be talked down by airmen in a Camaro chase car.
According to Hafner, the chase car talks him down to 2 feet, “and then it stalls and lands.”
“At any time, there is a U-2 flying somewhere in the world,” said Lt. Andrew Hunter of the intelligence squadron. They are based in an undisclosed location in “the desert” – as Air Force personnel refer to the Iran-Afghanistan war efforts – along with South Korea, Cyprus and Beale, among other locations.
The U-2 is serviced at Beale in one of several huge hangars near the flight line. Most of the planes are approaching 50 years old, and, while they are not easy to fly, they are extremely durable and expected to last another 25 years.
Backing up the U-2 is the KC-135, an in-flight refueling plane reminiscent of a Boeing 707 or B-52 that can keep aircraft going longer and farther than one tank of fuel can take them.
The Global Hawk is the new spy plane that will be home-based at Beale. Although there is only one there now, 50 more will be coming over the next six years after they are tested at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
In military speak, the Global Hawk is a “high-altitude endurance, unmanned aerial reconnaissance system.” While no one rides in the plane, it is still flown by pilots on the ground with computers.
With the Global Hawk, “we are not limited by distance,” said Sgt. Eric Smith, and flights usually last 24 hours. Pilots are currently flying them over the war zones “to get real-time images of an area” into the hands of ground commanders, normally within 15 minutes.
The Global Hawk is like the U-2 with a long wingspan (116 feet) for gliding purposes. It cruises at 395 mph and can be flown up to 36 hours. The plane has many off-the-shelf parts, including the landing gear used for Lear jets and a Rolls Royce engine that is the same one placed in the Cessna Citation personal jet.
According to Beale personnel, the jet is quieter than the machine used to start it. Inside is a giant digital lens that takes photos above 65,000 feet that are precise down to building and vehicle sizes.
Currently, a new dormitory is being built to house the 100 or so people who will handle the new Global Hawk mission.
On the ground
Airmen and women coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq have spurred a new training regimen at Beale for ground combat. Air Force personnel traveling in convoys overseas are susceptible to attack, and the initial troops were not prepared for it.
Now, troops bound to war are sent through a course where they are ambushed while in a convoy and taught how to respond. They are also taught how to enter buildings and other combat maneuvers.
Already on the ground at Beale is the PAVE PAWS radar building, a 10-story structure that is constantly on the lookout for missile attacks, should current or new wars escalate. The system can locate multiple missiles and tell military personnel where they are headed within minutes.
The PAVE PAWS also detect and monitor satellites in space. There are three PAVE PAWS watching the entire perimeter of the U.S. – Beale’s, one at Cape Cod, Mass., and another in Alaska.
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