The fascinating world of a Predator Drone Pilot | MSG Kent McDonald
Thank you very much. First of all, first and foremost for your service appreciate all that you did and everybody in our armed services um. So am i saying this right: youre, a master sergeant and youre with the army special operations, aviation, regiment, right, yeah, thats right ken yep? Are you still in the army? I am yeah just getting ready to retire, actually, okay and where were you stationed for the most part uh for the most part, i was in fort campbell kentucky, but ive been in fort wichuk, arizona, schofield, barracks hawaii over in korea, georgia and oklahoma. Okay. So if you have to be in the army, then um being someone who flies drones from the united states that thats kind of a sweet, gig isnt it it is yeah, it is a rule and and youre flying uh. This thing this is the mq 1c gray, eagle thats it yep thats, the armys, newest and greatest okay. So whenever anybody thinks about an army drone, they think the the predator is that the the predecessor or thats, the predator uh theres a whole bunch of different variants. Of it that they used back in the day, early 2000s that they went away with, but the mq 1 charlie is the newest one that they use. Okay – and this is this – is it in flight? Yes, yep thats, the newest one that they made for the extended range that you see the uh wing tips facing up and its got a wider wingspan, so its uh, it stays up, give us the stats on this.
It looks like its got all kinds of cool stuff on it. Well, i cant go too much in detail with the exact, oh right, of course, and everything like that, but it stays up for over 24 hours depending on the payload uh. The wings are long enough. Where its essentially a glider, once it gets up in the air, and typically when it goes up, were flying 18 to 20 000 feet is where were flying at okay now, uh master sergeant ive just been listening to some of the stats youve reeled off by my Account youve broken at least 43 faa rules, youre over 400 feet in the air. Uh youve lost visual line of sight, um youre flying over people yeah all that stuff ill report you in the morning he doesnt just fly over people. The rules have changed so much. Even in the decade ive been doing it i mean from when we started. Everyone was so scared of drones. I mean really quadcopters werent, really a thing you could find them at toys, r us for little things, but now it just got so big and people understand that drones have so much technology in them. Theyre, not dangerous. Theyre not gon na do things that causes damage to property or people, or things like that. So now were able to do a lot of that flying over people or flying over uh populated areas and so on and so forth, and im glad that you said that because uh, you know predator drones, those killer, drones, army, drones, um, are what people originally thought Of back when the consumer drone market started taking off so it already had that evil stigma.
You know that you say drone theyre, really quad copters, but everybody calls them drones, but uh yeah, but so so yeah, but im glad you said that now are you? Do you have a a regular consumer level, uh drone that you fly? I actually i dont i get enough of my fix at work every day, yeah right, im home, i i tend to just take a break from the video screen, because sometimes we stay in there for a long time flying them things. When i come home, i think the last thing i want to do, yeah, yes kelly. How does the army decide whether or not you become the man? Is this something you wanted to do? Did they say we want you to do this? How does it all kind of does? Does video game experience come in handy well, yeah a lot of people make fun of that, but honestly it does wow when youre flying these drones, especially in combat you have to have that ability to multitask and do so many different things not just flying anything or Telling where to go, youre managing battlefields, youre, keeping track where people are youre understanding? What different tactics are me so its everything you do in the video games its the same thing, but in real life? How much lag is there with the satellite stuff like? Is it immediate pretty much? No, so it all depends if, if im flying line of sight, which you do a lot um theres little to no lag at all.
But if im flying uh satcom with satellite communications, depending on the satellite were using, the footprint were in the trap, the distance between me and my aircraft. It could be anywhere from two seconds to 14 or 15 seconds youre flying these things line of sight too yep. Most of the time its line of sight, what was it like? The very first time you did that i cant because theres i mean people dont, realize how big they are. I just showed the video where the dude was standing next to theyre theyre, big theyre, huge yeah, so the wingspan on them, i think now its 82 or somewhere near 80, feet wide. The fuselage is real skinny, because the only thing thats in there is fuel and the head, where you see right there thats, where all the electronics are right, so theres, really not to it other than the fuel, the engine and the electronics that right theres. The camera, which has come a long way since we first started, used to be just the standard definition camera well now its high definition. So when im at the higher altitudes, i can see a lot more right. Can i um give you a gigantic set of these eyeballs and you slap them on one of those i wish i wish i dont think id get it wouldnt that be awesome. I mean it looks it. It really looks like it needs a face on it like eyes and like a big, stupid, grin or some flames, you know, but its hard enough keeping them things clean and from all the hail, damage and stuff like that, so i cant imagine anything would last very Long in that fusela are you quiet? Are they or how quiet or how loud are they depends? I mean obviously everything depending on what the uh acoustics around the areas, if theres mountain thats gon na echo off that or if its lower, you can hear it, but you cant hear i mean its loud on the ground, obviously because its a loud engine, but once You get up in the air, you aint gon na, hear it uh and are you responsible for the equipment itself or is that other people like youre the pilot and then theres or do you do like, like a man pilot? Would you do a walk around before you you take off? We do everything you do everything.
Okay, i was wondering about that. So you know you know how to maintain them as well. You just dont come in and you know crack open an energy drink yeah. We have maintainers so its an actual job in the army to maintain them, but um uh. We do all the walk arounds, we load the missiles we inspect the missiles, we inspect the cameras, any sort of payload. We have. We do all that speaking of missiles, i got some footage here of uh hellfire missiles uh being put on and how big is a hellfire missile theyre, pretty big. I mean theyre, probably five foot long way about 110 115 pounds and uh. How much is one in puppies cost uh? It depends. I mean so mind you, its the some of the rotary wings. Ive been uh shooting those for a long time. So if i get an older version of that um, it could be 20 or 30 000, but the newer ones are probably upwards towards 100, 500, 100, 000 per round per shot for sure. So in three two and wait for it: wait for it: 100 grand wow, wow, so um, what kind of uh? What what kind of training do you get, because this is all kind of very impersonal warfare. Um do! Do you guys get a ptsd um? Do you worry about uh not to get too personal, but you know do generally the pilots of remote vehicles like this? Do they get any kind of trauma happening worrying about what theyre doing you know when, when youre firing an anger at targets and things well, you know thats also something that the military is very new with so being a drone pilot.
Well, we dont call them drones. So we call them uas, so your unmanned air aerial systems is what we come. When youre uas pilot the army didnt know how to treat us, we didnt have crew rest. We didnt have any sort of idea what the impacts were on us, so my unit actually did a study of how what our cognitive ability is after flying for 12 to 14 hours, and we would do this for 90 days. We take it before we take a test after and see what my ability to retain ability to do. Math, just basic things goes up and down after that, and as far as the ptsd thing youre talking about, i mean its a its a lot for some of these, especially younger guys that come in they dont understand what things theyre going to be seen. Theyre going to be doing so, its generally up to the the older guys kind of coaching through and kind of just make sure theyre making good decisions, making sure theyre paying attention making sure theyre understanding that its not just them taking you know doing doing that sort Of thing its its what theyre instructed to do yeah so its not like its its, not really up to you guys, really its its some other higher up, saying: okay, we got the target and then right so youre, not just looking for people or so and thats, Where i would like to clear for a lot of people, they think these drone pilots are up there, just shooting people right, theres, right, right, theres lawyers, theres very high, ranking people that are saying: okay good to go; okay, okay, all right yeah! I dont want to get too personal with that, but i mean obviously theres a lot of socio political, stuff and and uh.
You know classified things and but uh sure i do have some some video of one of one of the ground stations and uh. Maybe you can kind of take us through here. This is kind of what youre working in right. One of these things, yep right were looking at the air force, but its very similar. Okay. They have a little bit bigger of stations because they have a pilot, a co pilot and then they have a guy in the back. That does all of the communications and a lot of other things which im not too sure on but theres, three or four of them that sit in there for us its just two, okay, but you have you have its not just you and the screen its. This is kind of what it looks like: yep, thats it and thats one of the older systems. You see right there, but yeah. You have the joystick sitting right there, which is an older system too, which we can go into that later, but uh the old ones had cockpits like that. Where you had stick and rudder, you have your full communications windows. You have your battlefield windows. You have your flight systems windows and you can see that she has the um front hud up or you can see the front of the aircraft as well for taxing takeoff, okay and uh. So i mean its just like flying in a a man plane pretty much youve got uh all the same systems and youve got autopilot and uh, and all that yep.
So you t and generally how far do you fly before from your area of interest like uh? Is it uh, do you take off from an aircraft carrier? Is there a base nearby or is it both or no its always going to be an airfield of some sort, and this is just this concept? The army has quite a few different uh drones that they fly, but this one yeah its going to be an airfield somewhere. Okay, so, but you cant do physical walk around if it, if youre taking off from across the world right yeah its somebody else, somebodys doing it, whether its me or that or whoevers taking control of that aircraft. Well, do a walk around okay sure! If theres, anybody in the chat that has a question kelly, please let me know about it, because this is just fascinating to me when, when did the the uas, the army, air force, uas program really come into its own, because its its pretty i mean were all Used to it now, but you know there was i was it um. Was it the iraq war when, when it first uh started being used in earnest yeah, so the original predators came with the mq 1. Bravo is what it was called came out in the early 2000s in iraq, and it was very, very new, very limited. They didnt really trust it theres a lot of glitches with it and it had very limited.
I dont want to say potential, but its very limited to what it does now, because it was still so new and they already had no clue what to do with the thing right and, as time has gone on. Since then, the air force has three or four different large uavs they fly. The army has just the same well, they have two now but um its gone just from leaps and bounds where we started having a capability that was only able to stay up for eight or nine hours at a time. So now it can stay up for 20. Something hours at a time having eight hellfire missiles instead of four, you know just constantly improving over time. How? How often does something like this get shot down or uh go wrong? You know crash or something like that. I mean not a lot, probably no, not very often at all, because i mean the companies that make these are just do a phenomenal job as far as setting up, if i lose link with it, what its going to do me as the pilot, i know exactly What my aircrafts going to do before i even set it up for pre flight. I put in my lost link controls and i know exactly what its going to do if i lose like with it. Okay – and somebody asked, if do you have return to home on, like almost if you use, if the you lose the link, it itll at least circle around, like a jet ski right, its gon na you could tell it to do whatever you want, so its gon Na store what you tell it to do so if i wanted to sit there and wait until i regain link for two hours, itll do it.
If i want it to come home right away, itll come home, wow wow. Whatever i do kelly did you have a question: yeah pickle droner in the chat? How do they handle air space? Do you call into towers or does military kind of, supersede everything? Well, so we use the same exact communication that man piles do so everything from ground to tower to approach departure. You name we do what we. What is something some sort of misunderstanding that you would like the general public to know what is one of the things that just gets in your craw about these things that people either assume or misunderstand about that? You would like to clear up. You know its and ive been multiple places uh in the world, where people just think that these drones are doing everything themselves, theyre, killing babies and doing all this stuff. And i just i want to overemphasize how much human interaction is involved in everything, whether its surveillance, whether its reconnaissance, whether its even engaging i mean theres, so many people that are involved and its never infringing on anyone that doesnt need to be infringed on. You know this and never in the united states, but everywhere overseas thats. We dont just sit there and stare at people because we want to its because theres reason for it right right how much autonomy will there be in the future? What do you see in 10? 20 years, as far as ai technology being incorporated into this thing, and maybe even partially taking pilots out of the equation, you see that happening.
I i cant see as long as there are aircraft with manned pilots in the skies. There will not be anything that is flying with no human interaction at all theres too much at risk. Theres too many lives in the manned aircraft that, if a lets say one of those aircraft, one of the unmanned aircraft goes rogue or doesnt do what its supposed to be doing and then theres. I have no control of it at all. Whose fault is that you know not those innocent people? You know so youre. The cameras on on there are just incredible. I mean its everything infrared stuff that we cant even stuff. We dont, even as a general public dont, know like x, ray you know, whatever uh the old clothes remover lens. You know that kind of stuff top secret, but uh so youre, getting like youre flying what twenty thousand feet, maybe um over a hostile area or whatever uh and youre getting down you can see like. Can you read so maybe dont dont tell me that, but like what are some of the weirdest things that youve seen just people doing just the citizens like what kind of wacky thing, because you know youve seen. I know youve seen like naked people sunbathing on roofs and people, picking their nose or doing weird stuff to farm animals. I know youve seen it come on man hows this interview going, i got ta, know man. What kind of weird stuff have you seen ken come on? I dont want to be offend anyone or say something: thats inappropriate, right, right right but yeah when im watching certain things now, stateside uh overseas, never stateside right the uh.
There are certain individuals that will sneak off at night time if were watching them to meet with somebody and try and hide, and do things like that or certain animals of some sort that they enjoy really so somewhere in the in the army archive this video of Yeah thats fantastic. Thank you for being honest about that. I wish i could keep some of those videos because there you would not believe some of the stuff i see i mean it is just insane the amount of things that no one can imagine ever being like ive seen this happen before you know, and you talk To your co pilot, hey, look at you! Are you seeing this look at that guy? Hey? Have you ever seen, uh any uh? What do you call it not ufos? What are they calling them now? Uh, not ufos, unidentified flying. Have you seen any anything uh like no youve? Never, because i mean mostly the cameras are pointed down – youre not looking at space but im, not looking up right right right, okay, so youve never seen uh anything but im. Sure hes heard something yes or no master. Sergeant do ufos exist, oh uh, if i had to guess yes, but have i seen any no wow, okay? Okay, all right, i say if i had to guess: yes, yes, kelly so youre about to retire whats. Next, for you will it include something in the drone field. You know – and i was just talking to ken about that um im – i havent – really had to venture through my next steps yet and im really wanting to stay in the uas community because its what ive done for so long and im good at it and im Good at managing people and programs, and just about anything with drones, ive done whether its small handheld stuff in the army to the biggest stuff we got.
So i would like to definitely do something i was talking to ken about the agricultural ones and being living out there. So that might be my next step, but im definitely putting my name out there trying to see what uh, what i can do for the community. Really because i would love to see it grow, as not only in the government side, but in the civilian sector being able to stand up programs that are self sufficient, where you know how to maintain them yourself. How to if you have pilots below you, how to make sure theyre maintaining proficiency? You know and everything yeah that well you have a great uh community here, uh thats willing to help you and um weve got thousands hundreds of uh resources, people that can advise you and uh is. Is there any way like if somebody has something to offer you about the agriculture that you can just contact me here and i can get all the can for you, ken herron upload at gmail dot com? So uh are you uh? Do you have your 14 cfr part 107? I do yeah, okay, okay and you are a man pilot. Obviously yeah right um. Do you have you? Do you have any interest in fpv at all that drone fpv first person view thats that drone that i was flying for you, oh yeah, yeah? That was doing the acrobatics. You know and a lot of the guys i used to work with got into the drone racing program just because they understand the movement so well, and that was something i thought about, but moving that fast gets me kind of sick, believe it or not, maybe thats Something like this dude.
How fast do does the uh, the mq 1c grey eagle, go? I mean, i think the average ground speed is probably 110, probably somewhere around there. Okay, but that brings up a good question. How maneuverable is that drone? Well, its a glider, so i mean i splatter because its slow, but it can do pretty decent maneuvers. I mean its not doing any fighter jet stuff, but its not cheap, but its able to do what it needs to do for what they have. What theyre designed for so there wont be any drone dog fights like with other other countries. Drones could be part of it, be honest. No, it would be. Do you think you do you think the uh, the grey eagle, could do a flip if you, if you had to like a loop yeah, if i had full control, no um overrides, probably barrel roll yeah, i mean yeah if they go fast enough and if i Got some wind pushing to me, i could probably do it. Okay, hey! Has anybody ever like straddled, one of those things and taken right? What i mean im just thinking i mean theyre theyre huge, these things. Let me let me let me let me play. Let me play this video again. You can see like how how big it is. Compare that dude, you can just hop up. You can put a saddle on it, go for it go for a ride. Ive seen stunt man somewhere thinking about it.
Well, i cant confirm or deny that ive uh given someone an atomic wedgie on the uh missile structure for their birth, okay, cool man, oh man, thats, so awesome, well, uh master, sergeant, uh, ken mcdonald. Thank you so very much for your time and your service. One of the coolest jobs ever we appreciate you doing what you do for us and the rest of the world. Thank you. Thank you for having me, i appreciate it. You bet and you can come over and uh well fly fpv anytime. You want id love that ill bring granny over too okay ill, put little miniature fake, hellfire missiles on it there just to make you feel more comfortable awesome. Thank you, sir. Well see you later all right. Take care all right, bye, bye, how about that dude huh! Quite possibly one of the best guests youve ever had on the show, i think so so interesting terrific. I could have talked to him for another hour, yeah im! Sorry, if we missed any questions in the in the chit chat, but uh yeah, maybe well have him on again uh one day once uh he figures out what hes wanting to do. I mean thats great resume. Padding right there id say thats right: dji should hire him tomorrow, yeah or you know, or the faa.