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Grim Reapers

 

Noah Shachtman, the editor of Wired's Danger Room defence (or defense, as they're American) blog, has been at Creech this week, and was surprised to notice the droll-verging-on-dark sense of humour the air crews there display with their personalised finishing touches to their aircraft.

He has a good point, but I don't think he was aware that Conquest is just one of a fleet of aircraft carrying all sorts of similar nicknames, among them some, erm, even less welcome old friends. While I was there I saw these two:

Noting that Pestilence and Death seemed to have been away on business, I asked Colonel John Montgomery, vice commander of the 432nd Wing, a former F-16 pilot and currently second-in-command at Creech, about the names, and he was... well, not exactly evasive, but neither was he particularly forthcoming. He did, however, confirm that the symbol at the top of the aircraft's tail was chosen because of the name of the aircraft, and is used by the 42nd Attack Squadron - the USAF's only Reaper outfit - as a squadron insignia. 

Unfortunately I didn't get one of the 42nd's t-shirts, which were on display near their bar in the Ground Control building: they featured a stylised drawing of a black panther leaping out of the darkness, superimposed over a Reaper, with the words "42nd Attack - Death Dealers".  I'm definitely in the market for one, though, so if anybody from the squadron is reading, please let me know where to send the money and whether it comes in XL.

There's a long history of airmen personalising the decor of their aircraft - you can go much further back than Chuck Yeager and Glamorous Glennis, the Memphis Belle and the kill insignia of World War II (Shachtman found a Reaper with similar markings too) - the Red Baron's entire paint job was a form of the same kind of thing. I suppose what may seem odd here is, firstly, the explicit acknowledgement of the bloody work these aircraft can be put to - though even that may be overstating the situation: around 98 per cent of Predator/Reaper sorties do not involve firing a weapon - and secondly, the sense of the absurd about personalising an aircraft that the pilot doesn't get in, and that flies its missions on practically the other side of the globe. Much has been made of the supposed disconnect remote-control pilots must feel, but - as my piece for the May edition of DTI explains - this isn't something that anyone involved in the Reaper/Predator missions accepts is a distraction or even much of an issue. It certainly seems that the people who have to do the adjusting to the new realities of unmanned air combat are not the airmen involved in operating the machines and flying the missions, but the rest of us. 

Addendum: the Las Vegas Review Journal reports that a Creech-based Predator crashed ealier this week on a training mission. The report doesn't go into enough detail to tell whether the aircraft was destroyed, but it came down on some of the masses of empty land out there and nobody was injured. This follows a Reaper crash in March, also reported in the LVRJ, which threw up one interesting question: if a Reaper "weapons system" includes one Ground Control Station and four airframes, from an accounting perspective you'd have to lose more than one aircraft for the entire "system" to make it onto the list of written-off equipment. 

Addendum 2: a General Atomics ad on page 13 of the May edition of DTI shows a 42nd Attack Squadron Reaper in flight. It's clearly one of the aircraft belonging to the Creech-based unit - it carries their panther logo fore of the wing on the fuselage, and the other markings are identical to those I saw on the airframes at the base - but the bottom of the lower tail fin seems curiously devoid of finishing touches. Was the photo taken before it had been "personalised" by its flight crew, or did GA think an aircraft bearing the name of one of the four horsemen may not be such a good look so decided to do some judicious pre-press Photoshopping? I think we ought to be told...





Comments

Nice piece, cool site Angus...informative, yet cheeky.

:)



posted by: Mr FiNN: 15 May, 2009 22:49:24

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