Local Army National Guard Unit Trains On Unmanned Aicraft

Reaching For The Sky

By Marc Strauss

October 15, 2011 Updated Oct 15, 2011 at 10:36 PM CDT

HAVANA, Ill. - A local Illinois Army National Guard unit made a bit of aviation history Saturday. None of the unit's troop members are pilots but that didn't stop them from reaching for the sky.

Its not a model airplane. Its called the Shadow, an unmanned aircraft or drone.

Its purpose?

"Its an eye in the sky for the commander to be able to make decisions on activities that are happening in the theatre," said Colonel Randy Sikowski of the Illinois Army National Guard.. Its got a camera system on it."

And that makes it possible to gather intelligence without sending troops into harm's way.

On Saturday, for the first time ever, the Shadow was launched in civilian air space. The flight took place just south of Havana as part of a training exercise by an Illinois Army National Guard unit based out of Peoria.

"They're getting training on how to take off, how to land and how to fly in a very small area," said Sgt. Douglas Morgan. "We travel about 4 or 5 times a year going out of state. With this air space that we have now we save the state a lot of money."

The Shadow can remain airborne for 5 hours and has a range of about 200 miles. The aircraft itself costs $700,000. The Peoria unit operates 4 of them.

Each UAV carries a $600,000 onboard camera. The other equipment and technology involved brings the total tab to over $20-million.

The aircraft currently used in Iraq and Afghanistan for reconnaissance and have been credited with locating valuable targets and other points of interest.

Specialist Maria Romero is in charge of assembling the drone.

"Its like putting together a model airplane, just slightly larger," said Romero. "It comes in pieces. You put them together and make your connections for fuel lines and oil lines. It takes about 45 minutes for us to put one together.

Saturday's training exercise was open to the public. Bob Reside drove up from Springfield.

"It fascinates me what they can do anymore," said Reside. "To be able to send it that far out and send back information there's no need for scouts anymore."

There are only 18 unmanned systems in the entire National Guard and the Peoria unit was one of the first to have one.