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Student crews work on the MQ-9 Reaper at the Hancock field Air National Guard base near Syracuse, NY. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Student crews work on the MQ-9 Reaper at the Hancock field Air National Guard base near Syracuse, NY. Photo: David Sommerstein.

Drones train above North Country Adirondacks

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There's been a lot of news lately about the Obama Administration's use of drones, or unmanned military aircraft, to kill alleged terrorists. Critics have said the attacks violate international law and have also killed many civilians. Drones will likely be a major topic in confirmation hearings for John Brennan to be the next head of the CIA.

The drones that fly over Afghanistan are often piloted by people sitting in suburban Syracuse, NY. Those pilots train by flying high over the North Country and the Adirondacks.

They may watch bridges or buildings, even follow cars, without anyone knowing they're being watched. And for some, there's a very fuzzy line between military preparation and a creepy eye in the sky.

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The Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing is stationed at the Hancock field Air National Guard base near Syracuse, NY. Photo: David Sommerstein
The Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing is stationed at the Hancock field Air National Guard base near Syracuse, NY. Photo: David Sommerstein
On the Hancock Air Base, in suburban Syracuse, there's a white bunker, encircled by several layers of concertina wire. Inside are virtual cockpits, from where pilots "fly" the MQ-9 Reaper. That's the U.S. military's premier "hunter-killer" drone.

From that cockpit, the pilots control the plane. And they can see what its camera sees in real time.

This is all so classified, I can't take a picture from far away, let alone go on a tour inside or talk with pilots.

What I can see is the Reaper itself, in a maintenance hangar, with students practicing how to take care of it.

The plane is ultrasleek and slate grey. And it's odd looking – it has no windows. Yet it can "see" things 20,000 feet down on the ground.

Lieutenant Colonel John O'Connor says this is the only place in the country where Airmen and women learn to maintain the Reaper. "This is critical to make sure these folks who are launching the aircraft and recovering the aircraft and fixing it between sorties know what they're doing and do it right every time."

The core training goes like this. A group of students drive up to Fort Drum, near Watertown, NY. They launch a Reaper from the air strip there, then turn over the controls to a training pilot sitting in that white bunker I can't take a picture of here in Syracuse.

Colonel Greg Semmel commands the 174th Attack Wing. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Colonel Greg Semmel commands the 174th Attack Wing. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Colonel Greg Semmel is commander of the Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing. He says he dislikes the word "drone", even "unmanned" aircraft, because "there's definitely a crew in the loop flying that thing at all times."

He prefers "remotely controlled" aircraft. Semmel says most of the Reaper training takes place in Fort Drum's airspace. Pilots practice supporting ground troops with bombing runs. Occasionally they even drop live missiles onto Fort Drum's ranges.

But the Reapers also soar far beyond military airspace, Semmel says, over Lake Ontario, across northern New York, over the Adirondacks, where real people live, not just soldiers in training.

For example, "let's say, we're going to go out and we're going to simulate watching a bridge over a river up in the Adirondacks, or some structure out there."

Semmel says they'll practice watching that bridge for hours. He says pilots will also practice tailing cars driven by hired contractors. They'll see civilian cars, too, maybe even people. But Semmel says they won't identify anyone or anything.

"We're going to see lots of cars go over that bridge. But I can tell you we don't have the capability to get detail on that car. We can't read the license plate. We can't tell who that is, where they're going, what they're doing."

The Reaper has been used to track and attack alleged insurgents or terrorists with great detail in places like Pakistan and Yemen. I asked the Reaper's manufacturer, General Atomics, if its camera could, say, identify a person. The company referred me to the Pentagon. An Air Force spokesman wouldn't get specific.

Cartoonist Marquil reacting in January 2011 to the program basing drones at Hancock.
Cartoonist Marquil reacting in January 2011 to the program basing drones at Hancock.
When the Reaper's training program was launched two years ago, Colonel Chuck Dorsey of the 174th Attack Wing described a more targeted training program for state regulators. He spoke to the Adirondack Park Agency in January 2011.

"We pick the third house on the right past the big blue silo and we start working there. One thing that's particularly difficult training and useful training is…Take the next car that drives North across the Black River out of Castorland, and then track that vehicle as it makes turns and goes around trees and behind barns and whatnot, and see where that thing ends up."

Worrying "eye in the sky"?

It's this hidden "eye in the sky" that worries privacy advocates most about drones, even when they're used for training the military.

Udi Ofer is with the American Civil Liberties Union: "What about the images that drones capture of people in their private property, in their backyard?"

Ofer says the Reaper training over the North Country is just one example of domestic drones already in use. Police used a drone in North Dakota last year to arrest a man in a cattle rustling case. Drones now regularly patrol the border near the Mohawk Nation territory at Akwesasne, with the rest of Canada, and with Mexico.

But Ofer says legal protections haven't kept up, "and that's why we need a privacy act for the 21st century to address the fact that drones are getting cheaper, they're getting smaller, and they're getting more powerful, yet there are no meaningful rules in place to regulate them."

I think [drones will] be used to stifle dissent and to punish dissenters. --Ed Kinane, protester against Hancock drones
Colonel Semmel of the 174th Attack Wing says the military has "very strict rules about what we can and can't do", and once a training surveillance video is used to debrief the pilots, it has to be destroyed in 30 to 60 days.

But there are thorny questions. What if a Reaper pilot witnesses a crime, like a holdup, or a car accident? Semmel says they wouldn't contact law enforcement unless it was a matter of public safety, like a house on fire. But it's unclear, for example, if the training video could be subpoenaed by a court of law.

There's been little public objection to the Reaper training flights. The North Country has been a military flyover hotspot for decades. F-16s from the old air base in Plattsburgh used to startle hikers climbing the peaks of the Adirondacks.

Peter Crowley was one of those hikers as a kid. Now he's managing editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newspaper, and remembers the planes: "it was jets. And they were low. I mean, frequent."

He says drones are not loud like jets. They're not a nuisance issue, but rather a privacy one. But when the paper wrote twice about the drone training flights, Crowley says his readers barely batted an eye.

"If there was some really strong feelings, we would have heard about them here. I was a bit surprised, to be honest, because sometimes people have concerns about privacy. I haven't heard them."

In a YouTube video of a protest at Hancock Air Base held in Oct., 2012, people tried to block the base entrance to protest the Reapers' actual missions – and reported civilian deaths from drone bombings - in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ed Kinane was arrested that day. He calls himself a lifelong demonstrator, and he's worried about the future – that drones will be used to intimidate people exercising their right to gather publicly.

"I don't want to see the government, the U.S. government, having any more power than it already has. So I think it'll be used to stifle dissent and to punish dissenters."

Experts say everyone from FedEx to farmers to paparazzi are looking into unmanned aircraft to help do their work. Colonel Semmel at the Reaper training program says that's inevitable.

"The opportunities are endless, so I think it's very important for us as a nation to figure out how to incorporate these things into the national airspace."

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts thousands of drones could be flying over U.S. airspace by the end of the decade. The debate over where and how is only just beginning.

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