Why Air Force Drones Rely On Horsehair to Land

A close up of the horsehair used to judge yaw during takeoff and landings for the MQ-9 Reaper

A close up of the horsehair used to judge yaw during takeoff and landings for the MQ-9 Reaper (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

On Oct. 23, Intercepts traveled to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico as part of a media tour. Holloman is notable as the training hub for the pilots and sensor operators who fly the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) fleets — known more colloquially, and to the great chagrin of the service, as “drones.”

Regardless of your feelings on militarized drones, it can’t be denied that they are a high tech piece of equipment that gives the service an efficient, relatively cheap way of providing persistent overwatch in an area. Which is why Intercepts was a little surprised to discover that among all the fancy sensors carried by the Predator and Reaper, a little piece of “horsehair” is vital to getting the systems up into the air.

That’s right. Horsehair. Or a close approximation of it, anyway.

Before we get into the details of that, here’s some background that might be handy.

While the Reaper and Predator are largely controlled by operators who remain in the continental US during operations, takeoff and landing is another matter entirely. That’s because the MQ-1/9 are controlled on Ku-Band, which has a two second delay back to the States. That’s negligible during operations, especially during the long stretches of time an RPA spends hovering over a target doing analysis and gathering information. But for takeoff and landing, that delay is potentially catastrophic.

Because of that, launch and recovery experts — trained specifically at Creech AFB for this part of the operation — are based much closer to the area of operations and use C-band, which has no delay. But taking off and landing can still be a real trick when you can’t get a feel for the aircraft. Remember, the operators of these things are sitting in a small trailer, not able to make the natural adjustments by feel the way, say, an F-16 pilot can do when coming in for a landing.

Which that brings us back to the horsehair. You see, sometime in the last 13 years of constant Air Force RPA use, someone decided they needed to know what the winds were like, and specifically what it is doing to the yaw, or the motion of the aircraft on its vertical axis. And that same someone decided hey, when taking off, we have a camera looking straight ahead… so let’s hang something off the front of the system and see how it blows.

And hence, the inclusion of horsehair to the front of the Air Force’ fleet of high-tech unmanned systems began. It’s hard to see it in this Vine, but the little low-tech solution actually works out really well during takeoffs:

While not quite as advanced as an EO/IR camera, the solution also requires maintenance. One official at Holloman noted that local birds love to steal strands from the measuring tool to build their nests, requiring maintainers to keep an eye out when the aircraft are resting in their bunkers.

Here are a few more shots from Holloman, which is home to nine Predator and 15 Reaper aircraft for training purposes:

An MQ-1 Predator sits on the tarmac at Holloman AFB (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

An MQ-1 Predator sits on the tarmac at Holloman AFB (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

The wind blows the "horsehair" on the tarmac at Holloman. (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

The wind blows the “horsehair” on the tarmac at Holloman. (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

Sensor package on an MQ-1 Predator (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

Sensor package on an MQ-1 Predator (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the tarmac at Holloman AFB (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the tarmac at Holloman AFB (Aaron Mehta/Staff)

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta
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