Calling all former Marine aviators

Cpl. Brandi S. Hauck, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, gets a thumbs-up from Capt. Dusty M. Oakes, from Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, September 30 during Forager Fury III on Andersen Air Force Base . Hauck has just guided Oakes into his parking space, has done routine maintenance procedures of the aircraft, and is now waiting for Oakes to disembark. Hauck is a plane captain and Oakes is an FA–18 pilot. Both are with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 currently assigned to Marine Air Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force under the unit deployment program. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler Ngiraswei.

Recognizing that the immediate future of airline pilots is in flux, the Marine Corps is offering former Marine pilots bonuses of up to $100,000 to come back and suit up.

According to Capt. Joe Butterfield, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, “We are offering this interim return to active duty opportunity partly because of timing. One of our objectives is to give this opportunity to former pilots who are now in the commercial airline industry, but may be dealing with ongoing furloughs and looking to return to active service.”

Eligible former Marine aviators can apply for the program by submitting an Administrative Action Form to Manpower Management Officer Assignments and request to be considered for return to active duty before November 6.

“Individuals need to be AV-8B, F/A-18, F-35, KC-130, or MV-22 pilots holding the rank of captain or major. They may also be a CH-53 pilot holding the rank of captain,” Butterfield wrote to AOPA. “Pilots will fill billets based on needs of the Marine Corps. Those needs are mostly in the Fleet Marine Force or instructor pilot billets.”

Prior to COVID-19, the Marine Corps had its own pilot shortage and struggled to attract and retain pilots who opted to fly for the airlines. Now the military hopes those pilots affected by the downturn of the commercial airline industry will come back. recently reported, “The Marine Corps wants the pilots to sign two, three, or four-year contracts to return to active duty. Those selected will be automatically career-designated if they weren’t prior to leaving the service, and those willing to stay in longer could be given preference.”

In the interview, Butterfield also stated, “This interim board gives the opportunity for those no longer on active duty to fly with the Marine Corps again and continue their service to the nation.”

George Biggs, member of Tuskegee Airmen, was 95

Biggs wanted to join the U.S. Army Air Corps as a 16-year-old, but he was initially prohibited by his father—a military man himself—who admonished Biggs to first finish high school. He was accepted by the service the day after he turned 18 in 1943. He requested combat duty, qualified for aviation cadet training, and was placed into the Tuskegee Institute with other Black service personnel, The Arizona Republic reported.

The group trained on Boeing-Stearman PT–17 Kaydets and Fairchild PT–19 Cornells, and learned to fly Curtiss P–40 Warhawks, Bell P–39 Airacobras, Republic P–47 Thunderbolts, and North American P–51 Mustangs painted with distinctive red tails. The group from Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama known as the “Red Tails” earned a solid reputation for providing backup during bomber escort missions in North Africa and the European theater.

An obituary posted by The National WWII Museum said Biggs trained for aerial gunnery and navigator-bomber roles in North American B–25 Mitchell bombers during World War II and rose to the rank of master sergeant.

After the war ended, Biggs re-enlisted as a non-commissioned officer in the newly created U.S. Air Force and “started all over again,” recalled his daughter Rose Biggs-Dickerson. “It took another four years before he was recommissioned as an officer.” During the Korean War he flew bomber missions from Okinawa, Japan, on Boeing B–29 Superfortresses and from South Korea on Martin B–26 Marauders.

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. George Biggs, who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and served in three wars, died at age 95 in Nogales, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Rose Biggs-Dickerson.

When the Korean conflict ended, he was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona, and also flew Boeing B–47 Stratojets. Biggs-Dickerson said her father was one of the first African American officers stationed there and he “worked hard to help other Black airmen settle into life at the base.”

Biggs later flew Boeing B–52 Stratofortress bombers during the Vietnam War and earned numerous military honors. Despite his accomplishments, he spoke often of the discrimination he faced in the military, The Air Force Times reported.

Serving in the military runs in the family, explained Biggs-Dickerson: “Dad was the oldest of four brothers, and they were also in the Air Force. His other brothers were also bombardiers/navigators during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. My father, being the oldest, was the only brother to serve in World War II, but they all had very successful military careers.” The Biggs’ family military service began with “my dad’s grandfather—he was a Buffalo soldier,” a group of African Americans who served on the Western frontier during the late 1800s. Her younger cousins also entered military service to keep the tradition alive. “Military is what we know. It’s part of our legacy,” she said.

In 2007 Biggs and other Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal for their military service. In 2013, then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer met with Biggs and a group of fellow Tuskegee Airmen to acknowledge their accomplishments and established the state’s yearly commemoration of their service—celebrated during the fourth Thursday in March.

Biggs-Dickerson said a military service is planned for October 2 in Phoenix and hoped it would include a flyover by Luke Air Force Base pilots. She said her father never saw himself as a hero, but rather as “a soldier who followed the orders he was given. He didn’t want to be considered a hero because they did what they were supposed to do.”

Update: Hayward Air Rally postponed to October 17

The starting flag will drop October 17 for the 56th Annual Hayward Air Rally. While the rally still consists of two 250-mile legs, pre- and post-rally activities have been dropped or moved online to facilitate social distancing. Photo by Carl La Rue.

Traditionally held in May, rally organizers announced well before the novel coronavirus that the 2020 event would be moved to October for several reasons—including competition with graduations, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day, as well as for potentially better weather. The rally committee hoped that by moving to October, there would be fewer scheduling conflicts, and more pilots could participate.

Then the pandemic emerged. But organizers vowed the rally would persevere. Then a devastating wildfire season hit California. The 56th Annual Hayward Air Rally had to be delayed from October 3 to 17. If conditions cooperate on October 17, pilots will fly a normal course with two, 250-mile legs—albeit with an abbreviated format.

The Hayward Air Rally is not a race; crews fly against their planned time and fuel consumption. Scoring emphasizes traditional flight planning and pilotage skills. Every second, and fraction of a gallon, higher or lower than planned will earn penalty points and scoring is like golf—the lowest number wins. AOPA Pilot tagged along on the 2017 rally.

“What we have dispensed with is the Thursday arrival at Hayward Executive Airport with impound, registration formalities, and the course briefing,” explained Chris Verbil of the Hayward Air Rally Committee. “Saturday would have been at the rally destination with recreational activities and the evening awards dinner and presentations. Sunday would be the fly-home day. So we’ve made our Friday ‘fly day’ on a Saturday in the hopes that those who have resisted entering before because of the multiday commitment now have a lower barrier to entry.” 

“Face masks will be required any time pilots are out of their planes, and/or interacting with other people,” he noted.

Rally aircraft will depart Saturday morning, October 17, from Hayward, California; navigate to Meadows Field in Bakersfield, refuel; and then continue to Tracy Municipal Airport in Tracy. “Pilots then fly home afterwards,” Verbil said. “We’re anticipating that our entries are all going to be from Northern California—which, so far, has been the case with all the entries we’ve received.” He said about 20 aircraft have registered to date.

The awards presentation, conducted online using Zoom, is planned for the following day.

Organizers say the rally, which grew from a personal challenge in 1965 between pilots who also were Hayward city officials, is the longest continually held proficiency flying event in the United States. The Hayward Air Rally is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and has a long record of providing scholarships—covering tuition and airfare—for young people to attend the Experimental Aircraft Association’s weeklong Air Academy in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Will the Garmin D2 Air make pilots wear watches again?

Garmin’s new D2 Air (retail price: $499) does those essential things—as well as hundreds of others, some of which are really useful.

Unlike Garmin’s previous bulky forays into aviation watches, the D2 Air is light, comfortable, and visually appealing. Its lithium-ion battery lasts all day (10 hours) in the air with internal GPS and other power-hungry sensors on, and a full workweek (five days) on the ground in normal operation.

The D2 Air’s best new features for pilots are: built-in oxygen and pulse sensors; an altimeter; direct-to GPS navigation; airport weather reports; sunrise, sunset, and civil twilight times; and flight logging functions tied to the Garmin Pilot app. Less useful items include the Garmin Pay app (who knew Garmin even had one?); animated workouts; a buzzer that lets you know you’ve taken enough steps; and distracting alarms whenever you get an email,  receive a text, or talk on your phone. (Do I really need my watch to tell me I’m talking on the phone? Perhaps as a way to avoid prolonged butt-dials.)

The D2 Air pairs to a smartphone via Bluetooth and the Garmin Connect app, and it can link to Wi-Fi networks, too.

Garmin is a big player in wearable technology ranging from watches to dog collars, and the D2 Air is specialized for pilots the way other Garmin watches are made for hikers, runners, bikers, and fishermen.

The Garmin D2 Air is customized for pilots. Image courtesy of Garmin International.

Personally, I quit wearing watches several years ago when the battery in my last Timex Ironman died. Since a smartphone is my constant companion, I saw no point in replacing the dead battery, and the watch has resided in the bottom of a dusty desk drawer ever since.

But I’ve enjoyed test-driving the D2 Air and wearing a watch again.

It’s inobtrusive, and it has a clever sensor that somehow knows when you twist your wrist to glance at it. (If that doesn’t work, just double-tap the screen to wake it up.) Then the watch face shows a classic screen containing hour, minute, and sweep second hands. It also displays the temperature, surface wind, and the sky conditions at an airport of your choice; the day and time; and the digital time.

Other more advanced functions take some time to learn. And the eight-page Quick Start Manual that comes with the watch doesn’t do much to explain them. That requires digging into the Garmin website where the online manual resides.

Today’s gadgets can do so much that some of the biggest decisions that designers must make is what to leave out. Here, Garmin shows some laudable self-discipline by avoiding a “kitchen sink” strategy. Previous Garmin pilot watches included dubious features such as the ability to remotely control video cameras, for example, that wasted electrons.

The D2 Air avoids such pitfalls. It’s a smart, elegant, and helpful addition to any pilot’s throttle hand.

Hydrogen-powered Piper circuits pattern

The six-seat Piper flown in Cranfield, England, has been retrofitted with a powerplant built around a hydrogen fuel cell by ZeroAvia, and the traffic pattern circuit was the first completed without a battery. (Previous tests had been conducted with a battery powering the electric motor.) It was billed in various contexts as a “world first,” though that superlative demands an asterisk: As some media outlets noted, a four-seat airplane with a hydrogen fuel cell providing the energy flew in 2016.

ZeroAvia differentiated the recent milestone by describing the six-seat Piper (a single-engine design typically powered by either a piston or a turbine engine) as a “commercial-size aircraft” in the news release.  ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov further clarified: “While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells as a power source, the size of this commercially available aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon.”

Founded in California by electric automotive industry veterans, ZeroAvia emerged from radio silence in 2019 and stated a series of well-publicized test flights with batteries powering an electric motor while the hydrogen fuel cell was being developed and tested separately.

Pressurized hydrogen supplies the power for this Piper. Photo courtesy of ZeroAvia.

The U.K. government provided $3.3 million in 2019  to help fund a yearlong test program dedicated developing a zero-emission commercial aircraft, a proof of concept that could set the stage for developing larger versions suitable for regional airline service. In the news release announcing the recent flight, ZeroAvia appeared to aspire to a degree of dual corporate citizenship, noting that the company is “based in London and California.” It was not obvious whether British taxpayer support might sway the firm’s national allegiance. The latest flight might not have been the first time a hydrogen-fuel-cell system carried humans aloft in a fixed-wing aircraft, but British government official Robert Courts called it “one of the most historic moments in aviation for decades, and it is a huge triumph for ZeroAvia in particular, but, as well, for British aviation more generally.”

National pride aside, the flight was a significant step in the development of one of the first hydrogen fuel systems for aviation that appears likely to scale up. ZeroAvia’s modified Piper test aircraft is the centerpiece of the HyFlyer project, a public-private partnership that aims to complete a hydrogen fuel cell flight of up to 300 nautical miles in the near future. In the longer term, ZeroAvia hopes a larger version of the prototype powerplant will match the performance of a Pratt & Whitney PT-6, enabling zero-emission airline flights of 500 miles or more in aircraft with up to 19 seats, Miftakhov told AOPA in 2019.

Hydrogen is for now the only known alternative to fossil fuels that packs enough energy within weight limitations dictated by physics to propel large aircraft over long distances. Batteries are heavy, and don’t really come close to Jet A, pound for pound. Fuel cells have long since proved capable of serving up electricity in quantity for specialized applications. Similar systems powered U.S. spacecraft starting in the 1960s. Connecting airports to the hydrogen supply chain is among the remaining challenges, but the payoff could be significant in terms of carbon reduction: The only waste product from a running fuel cell is water.

IFR Fix: Holiday flying in 2020

Consider checking your basic skills before reaching for instrument currency.  If “aviating” is occupying all your attention, IFR navigation could be too much to handle simultaneously.

A reunion with friends or family as a respite from our long personal sequestrations is a wonderful incentive to fly—but don’t let enthusiasm overtax your preparedness. Another word for “incentive” is “pressure,” which can erode a pilot’s normal caution. Risks increase if the merry mission must occur on a tight timetable—a common holiday-season scenario.

You can check yourself for telltale symptoms of taking on too big a helping of risk by assessing with brutal honesty whether you are trying to downplay adverse elements of a preflight weather briefing, or the in-flight conditions. Accident reports commonly describe instances of noninstrument-rated pilots and IFR pilots colliding with obscured terrain or becoming disoriented from maneuvering without visual references or at low altitude.

Thanksgiving Day fell on November 23 in 2017. The previous afternoon, an instrument-rated commercial pilot departed in a Cessna 172 for a VFR flight from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Middlebury, Vermont, for a holiday visit. The Skyhawk crashed in a field in Pittsford, Vermont, about an hour later, in what the NTSB described as a fatal “VFR encounter with IMC” accident.

The pilot “received two weather briefings in the [two] days before the flight, with the most recent briefing (the day before the flight) indicating widespread marginal visual flight rules conditions and mountain obscuration,” the report said. Nevertheless, “the pilot chose to conduct the flight under VFR and indicated to the briefer that he did not want to fly through clouds with potential icing conditions.”

Flight-track data suggested that “the pilot inadvertently encountered instrument meteorological conditions while maneuvering the airplane in deteriorating light conditions near the end of civil twilight.”

The 89-year-old pilot’s recent instrument experience was unknown, the NTSB said. However, “He was likely not prepared for the sudden entry into instrument conditions and the loss of visibility combined with the turns and varying altitudes while attempting to exit the valley resulted in spatial disorientation and a subsequent loss of airplane control.”

An aviation axiom holds that the instrument rating can serve as added “insurance” for a pilot. But the insurance is only valid when a proficient pilot flies published instrument routes in protected airspace.

101-year-old WWII B–29 pilot honored with Superfortress flight

Vaucher flew 117 combat missions during 46 months of service, and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, among other decorations. Vaucher the “show of force” formation of 525 B–29s that flew over the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. Decades later, he was chosen to serve as honorary air boss for the Arsenal of Democracy 75th World War II Victory Commemoration Flyover that was to have included 70 aircraft passing in waves over the nation’s capital to honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II.

That was the plan, but the flyover had to be scrubbed because of bad weather on September 25, and again on September 26.

Ragged, low ceilings; mist; and an occasional glimpse of blue sky taunted the pilots and crews of lovingly restored aircraft. They had all toiled at airports around the nation’s capital for the better part of a week leading up to the planned event, practicing the formations that would re-create a show of force for 2020, formations of aircraft arranged to celebrate their respective military roles, one following the next over the National Mall.

For many, the gathering at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field and Culpeper Regional Airport was a labor of love. The days leading up to the planned flyover were an intense mix of aircraft maintenance and proficiency flights, pilots perfecting their formations of historic flying artifacts.

Crews alternated between practice runs and oil changes. Wax and polish were the order of the day as aluminum skin and military paint schemes were buffed to a fine luster that would have reflected the sun—if it could be seen through the clouds. Though mechanical issues are routine, finding parts for airplanes that rolled off the factory floor eight decades ago challenged maintenance teams until nearly the last minute.

A bad magneto in one of the four Curtiss-Wright radial engines temporarily grounded the Boeing B–17 Flying Fortress Sentimental Journey. It rumbled to a stop with a load of guests and visitors after an aborted takeoff during a preparation flight.

But the crew of Doc, one of the last two Superfortresses still flying, was determined to get Vaucher in the air.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Vaucher, 101, who flew Boeing B-29 Superfortresses during World War II, joins the B-29 ‘Doc’ crew at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field after a local flight in the aircraft which was scheduled to take part in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., before it was scrubbed for weather September 26. Photo by David Tulis.Vaucher was accompanied by Veterans Airlift Command volunteer pilot John Gabriele, Donna Lazartic, and family members as he ascended through a bomb bay stairwell into the navigator’s position on the port side of the fuselage. His eyes sparkled under a shock of grey hair as Vaucher surveyed the reconstructed aircraft that had languished for 42 years in the Mojave Desert before a cadre of volunteers led by Tony Mazzolini swarmed in to save it.

The flight from Manassas brought back memories for the World War II U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who also delivered to the armed forces the first Boeing B–29 when it rolled off the Wichita, Kansas, assembly line in July 1943.

The massive front windscreen provided Vaucher a superb view of rolling terrain near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains as the 99-foot-long aircraft smoothly rotated and entered a left crosswind. Two large television monitors aft of the bomb bay broadcast an outside view of the flight, a graphical representation of airspace, and the current weather conditions, while the bomber quickly ascended to pattern altitude. The situational awareness was a vast improvement over the instrumentation Vaucher relied on during his years of active service.

Less than favorable weather conditions kept the honor flight short and in the local area.

After the successful flight, which had attracted a crowd to the airfield despite secrecy surrounding the anniversary mission, Vaucher regaled B–29 Doc pilot Steve Zimmerman with a few stories he encountered as a World War II bomber pilot.

Engines start on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress ‘Doc’ for a local flight at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field in northern Virginia after the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., was scrubbed for weather September 26. Photo by David Tulis.Weak brakes, a lack of reversible props, and a nosewheel collapse cut one wartime B–29 mission short. During another, his heavily laden long-range bomber struggled to gain altitude when one of the four supercharged 2,200-horsepower Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engines feathered unexpectedly on takeoff.

“I staggered out” as the 138,000-pound aircraft slowly gained altitude, he recalled to Zimmerman, who had just landed the meticulously restored B–29 Doc on 6,200-foot long Runway 34R. “What happened was that when the co-pilot ganged the power down from our takeoff engine speed of 2,900 rpm to 2,600 rpm or so, one of the toggle switches stuck and an engine went into feather mode. I could barely keep the airspeed up above a stall. Fortunately, we took off at sea level and remained at sea level for the next 10 miles, so I was able to baby the thing up to get going.”

Vaucher later joined the flight crew on the ramp for a postflight photo where he flashed a smile and an enthusiastic thumbs up. Earlier the honorary air boss repeated the advice he dispatched to dozens of warbird pilots who diligently trained and prepared themselves and their machines to overfly the Potomac River, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Mall. He admonished them to “get in line and stay in line,” just as he did at the tip of the spear in Japan more than 75 years ago.

Royal Thai Air Force buys Texan IIs

The contract includes other equipment and services in support of the RTAF’s Integrated Training System: “ground-based training systems for pilots and maintenance professionals, a mission planning and debrief system, spare parts and ground support equipment.” Work on all these elements of the contract will take place at Textron Aviation Defense’s location in Wichita, Kansas.

“The Royal Thai Air Force operates one of the most advanced air forces in Asia Pacific and is a key U.S. security ally,” said Thomas Webster, regional director of Textron Aviation Defense Asia Pacific Sales. “Their acquisition of the Beechcraft T–6C Texan II Integrated Training System empowers their cadre of student pilots with a technological advantage throughout their flight training and prepares them for a successful transition to advanced fighter and attack aircraft.”

“We’re proud to equip the Royal Thai Air Force with the world’s most proven off-the-shelf training capability in the industry,” said Brett Pierson, vice president of Textron Aviation Defense Strategy and Sales. The 12 Texan IIs—dubbed the T–6TH in Thailand—are planned to enter the RTAF fleet between late 2022 and early 2023. Plans are to fly two of the airplanes to Thailand, crating and shipping the remaining 10 to Kamphaeng Saen.

“To date, the Beechcraft T–6 Texan II has logged more than 4.1 million flight hours across a global fleet of nearly 1,000 aircraft,” Textron Aviation Defense said. “Each year more than 300 pilots from 42 nations graduate from T–6 training via the NATO Flight Training Program in Canada, the Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program at Sheppard AFB in Texas and the U.S. Air Force Aviation Leadership Program. Another 2,000-plus pilots graduate from T–6 programs across the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Coast Guard.” More than 2,700 other pilots graduate from T–6 programs in the Greek, Argentine, Israeli, U.K., Iraqi, Canadian, Moroccan, and New Zealand air forces, as well as the Mexican Navy and Air Force.

Photo courtesy of Textron Aviation Defense.

Training Tip: Just a local flight

This is, of course, a not-very-tricky trick question—and here’s a huge hint: Both pilots have the same duty of care. Preparing for two kinds of flights may require attention to different details, but one flight isn’t more worthy of dutiful preparation than the other.

For one pilot who downplayed the importance of preparing for flight within a familiar local area, the sequence of mental errors started with making a hybrid hash of preflight checks and cockpit organization, creating vulnerability to omissions with nothing left but luck to save the aircraft and occupants.

The Cessna 172 was in cruise at 2,000 feet when the engine failed just out of reach of the departure airport. The pilot’s choices for an off-airport landing were few in the damp fields below. Luckily, a paved road was within reach, and free of obstacles and traffic, permitting a safe landing.

What caused the engine failure?

Nothing exotic.

“Upon completion of the landing roll it was noticed that the fuel selector valve was positioned to the OFF position,” the pilot wrote, adopting a passive voice for composing an Aviation Safety Reporting System filing. “When positioned to BOTH the aircraft was able to be re-started and returned to the airport without further issues.”

The pilot peppered the report with descriptions of having used a tablet-based checklist for preflighting, then setting it aside and switching to a physical checklist during startup. The switchover somehow resulted in skipping the crucial check of the fuel selector valve’s position.

Now add a dash of rust and complacency to the recipe: The pilot wrote that the decision to remain local for the flight was “due to not flying for two months.” However, familiarity with the local area elicited the complacency error of stowing the trusty tablet—and with it, the engine-out checklist—beyond reach in a flight bag after preflighting.

Had the pilot followed accustomed preflighting practices, “the emergency checklist would have been readily available and the fuel selector valve would have been caught on the descent and the engine may have been able to be re-started,” the report said.

Have you begun to regard local flights as more “casual” than longer journeys? This narrow-escape tale offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the attitudes you have formed about risk.

Saving turtles also salvages senior year

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus is within easy reach of the world’s most popular loggerhead turtle nesting sites along the state’s eastern shore. Not much was easy to reach in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, however, with shutdowns, social distancing, and travel off the table for many. Embry-Riddle moved classes online and shut down flight operations.

That left Andrés Larrota, a native of South America who moved to the United States nearly two decades ago, among many Embry-Riddle seniors in need of flight experience with graduation approaching fast.

Larrota has been aiming to become a professional pilot since his first encounter with aviation as a child, a six-hour red-eye flight from Colombia to New York that lit the spark.

“I did not sleep a single minute. I was just looking out the window to see what was going on and listen to all of the noises,” said Larrota, in a recent video chat.

That sleepless flight eventually led Larrota to Embry-Riddle, where he quickly earned his private pilot certificate and an instrument rating. Then, he discovered the school’s unmanned aviation offerings as a sophomore.

Larrota has a unique connection to unmanned aircraft systems: His father works in Colombia as a land surveyor and uses unmanned aircraft for photogrammetry and topography work. Larrota’s father gave the young pilot a DJI Phantom 4, and that proved to be enough to nudge him onto a new course studying UAS.

A rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtle builds her nest. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.)Larrota was lined up for a study-abroad trip to the Balkan Peninsula when the pandemic struck, planning to join a team of professors and fellow students on a project to survey archaeological sites with UAS, and develop urban air mobility concepts as well.

“That was going to be my first hands-on experience,” Larrota said. “When the coronavirus hit I was left with nothing.”

He was stuck in Florida with time on his hands and not much to do, until he remembered a conversation with professor John Robbins, and decided to follow up. Robbins is Embry-Riddle’s unmanned aircraft systems program coordinator, and he had an opening on a team of eight students being assembled for a turtle conservation mission to work alongside staff from Northrop Grumman and the Brevard Zoo. The collaborative effort, known as “Turtle Tech,” seeks to learn more about the types of turtles inhabiting Florida’s Space Coast, and their nesting patterns.

Turtles might not be suffering the consequences of the coronavirus, but they do have other problems. While sea turtles might lay 100 eggs or more in each nest, biologists estimate that only one in 1,000—and perhaps as few as one in 10,000—hatchlings will reach adulthood. The reasons range from racoons to artificial lighting on beaches, and this attrition threatens the survival of many species of sea turtles.

That’s where Turtle Tech comes in. The program is working to launch a sophisticated surveillance effort to provide crucial conservation insights by documenting hatching events and migration behavior on a massive scale with minimal personnel. Turtle Tech has earned buy-in from several corporate, educational, and governmental organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Sea Turtle Conservancy, among others.

“This just has the potential to bring out so much cool work and do some really good things for the turtles and conservation in general,” Robbins said in a video chat.

Larrota dug into this newfound opportunity with gusto, and spent much of the summer crafting procedures, researching airspace, and assessing the available unmanned aircraft technology.

Turtle Tech will use two types of unmanned aircraft systems to fly: the Applied Aeronautics Albatross, a fixed-wing platform with vertical takeoff and landing capability, and DJI quadcopters including the Matrice 210 for turtle close-ups. The versatile quadcopter can carry multiple payloads and capture detailed images of sea turtles, while the fixed-wing Albatross can cover more ground and loiter much longer, with endurance of up to about four hours per flight.

The two aircraft types will work in tandem, with the Albatross scanning a wide swath to locate turtles of interest up to 12 miles offshore, and the Matrice 210 closing in on turtles spotted by the Albatross to capture detailed images of the marks and patterns on the turtle shells, detail that will allow animal identification to be automated.

Richard Beers serves as a program and offshore leader for Northrop Grumman. He noted in a press release that unlike most drone-based surveillance efforts this tandem approach will yield far more data in a short time than would have been possible by more traditional means: ”This sequential approach will allow the team to populate a sea turtle database—without having to capture and attach tracking devices to each animal.”

The Embry-Riddle students have spent the past few months preparing the drones for launch by replacing servos, working on the airframes, and conducting test flights. Larrota looks forward to the moment when the entire team takes off for the first time: “How everyone came together to accomplish this one mission is what I’ve been most excited for.”

Like many unmanned aircraft missions, the data analysis piece is where much of the Turtle Tech magic will happen. Images captured by the aircraft will be loaded into a “neural network,” a powerful artificial intelligence platform trained to automatically identify turtles pictured in the vast trove of data. As turtles are identified, the system will match location data to the digitally captured turtles in the database. Engineers hope that this sophisticated survey will deliver insight about turtle behavior and movements that will help them more precisely target future efforts to preserve the population.

For Larrota, the project has given him confidence that he made the right decision transitioning from manned aviation to unmanned: “It’s surreal… To give information to biologists and researchers is the most exciting part of this, it’s actually making a difference for the animals.”

Student success is what inspires Robbins in the classroom.

“It’s a great experience to see them start to make the connection points; they’ve learned how to do this and now they’re applying it to the field,” he said. “The fusion between those two elements reminds us that we’ve done things right.”

 Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University student Andrés Larrota and professor John Robbins prepare to fly a DJI Phantom 4 Pro. (Photo by Marc Compere, courtesy of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.)