Saturday, September 02, 2017

Syracuse, Onondaga County, New York: Mystery of planes circling solved

Syracuse, N.Y. -- Residents on the east side of Syracuse reported an odd sight this week - a small plane circling overhead for long periods over several days. heard from a half-dozen people who wanted to know what was going on with the plane. Who was flying it? Was it on some type of search and rescue mission? Perhaps taking aerial photographs? 

Witnesses described the craft as a single-engine "Cessna-type" plane. Some thought it was painted blue on the bottom but mostly white everywhere else. One person said it was gray.

Since we love mysteries, we decided to look into it. First, we checked with the Army's Fort Drum in Watertown. Were they sending aircraft down to Syracuse on some kind of mission? 

Nope. A spokesperson said Fort Drum only operates helicopters, not planes.

Witnesses said the plane's propeller was on the front of the craft. That ruled out the Reaper, which is powered by a rear-mounted prop. But what about the planes that follow the Reapers while they are in unrestricted airspace?

We called the Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Air Force's civilian auxiliary. Its small, single-engine planes follow the Reapers from the time they take off from Hancock until they reach restricted airspace over Lake Ontario.

The FAA requires the Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing to have humans, either on the ground or in the air, observe the remotely-piloted Reapers the entire time they are in unrestricted airspace to watch out for other planes. This reduces the risk of collisions with other aircraft. 

Sure enough, Lt. Col. Dean Anderson, commander of the Civil Air Patrol's Central New York affiliate, said the planes were from the auxiliary.

The patrol operates four small planes - three of them painted red, white and blue, and one painted military gray. Members of the unit and volunteers from throughout the country fly the planes almost daily providing chase duty for the Reapers.

Anderson said the planes normally escort the drones from Hancock to Lake Ontario on their daily training missions. The drones are operated by pilots sitting in control stations on the ground at Hancock Field, the Air National Guard base at the airport. The planes also escort the drones back to Hancock, he said.

The missions do not normally require the planes to fly around in circles. But at times, the drones' takeoffs are delayed by maintenance issues or by other aircraft using the runways, Anderson said. In those cases, the chase planes fly in circles southeast of the airport, an area that includes the east side of the city and parts of DeWitt, while waiting for the Reapers to take off, he said.

The circling usually does not last very long. But the Civil Air Patrol often has two planes on drone chase duty each day, so what people thought was a single plane circling around for an extended period was likely two planes at different times of the day, he said.

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