A 24-year-old private first class piloted a new $300,000 Hawaii Army National Guard aircraft over Wheeler Army Airfield Tuesday — from inside a Humvee parked on the tarmac.
The Shadow 200 RQ-7B unmanned aerial vehicle, its 38-horsepower engine revved up like a leaf blower on steroids, leapt off its pneumatic catapult and soared over Wheeler and the Waianae Range as its swiveling camera tracked cars driving on the military base.
An unveiling ceremony was held Tuesday for the National Guard’s four new Shadows, a UAV that has had widespread success in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Shadow represents the future of aviation," Lt. Col. Neal Mitsuyoshi, commander of the 29th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, said at the ceremony.
Officials said National Guard brigades in 11 states are receiving Shadows this year, bringing the total to Guard units in 30 states.
The Army previously said it had fielded 98 Shadows and the Marines had 11, with the "workhorse" UAV exceeding 600,000 combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan since it was first introduced into the Army.
The Marine Corps said it has no UAVs in Hawaii, while the active-duty 25th Infantry Division has Shadow UAVs in Iraq, officials said.
The vehicle’s arrival to the National Guard follows an announcement in April that more than 2,000 Hawaii soldiers with the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, along with 1,600 others from Guam and Arizona, could deploy to Afghanistan in 2013.
It would be the third brigade-level deployment for the Hawaii National Guard to a combat zone since 2004.
"(The aircraft are) to support our mission. Because of deployments, they want to make sure all those (National Guard) units have the capability," said Capt. David Chang, who commands B Company of the 29th support battalion. The 80-soldier unit has about 10 pilots.
In its plan for unmanned aerial systems 2010 to 2035, the Army said it began combat operations in October 2001 with 54 Hunter and Shadow UAVs.
"Today, the Army has over 4,000 unmanned aircraft systems in various sizes and capabilities with still more programmed," the report said.
Armed Predator drones have hit targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan using Hellfire missiles. Aviation Week reported last year that the Army and Marines were looking for a 25-pound or lighter weapon that could be adapted to the relatively lightweight Shadows.
The 380-pound aircraft has a 14-foot wingspan, can fly 15,000 feet above sea level and stay aloft for more than five hours, providing reconnaissance, surveillance and laser target acquisition, according to the Army.
The aircraft is controlled by a line-of-sight data link; Chang said if a mountain interferes with the control, the UAV will automatically return to a designated way-point.
The only place in Hawaii the Shadows can fly are the restricted airspace over Schofield Barracks, Wheeler, the adjacent Waianae Range and Makua Valley, and at Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island, officials said.
First Lt. Todd Yukutake, a 34-year-old soldier with the 29th Brigade Special Troops Battalion who was one of about 55 people at Tuesday’s Shadow unveiling, believes there’s a "good chance" the Hawaii soldiers will deploy to Afghanistan in 2013.
"They still need a lot of soldiers over there," said the Aiea High School graduate, who previously deployed to Kuwait and Iraq with the 29th Brigade.
"I think these (Shadows) will be great over there (in Afghanistan)," Yukutake said. "In Iraq sometimes we’d call for helicopters to scout the road ahead to make sure it’s clear — making sure there are no bombs and no enemy hiding around the corner."