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Mo. man goes from hobbyist to drone pilot in Afghanistan

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan -- The decorated Army Command Sergeant Major and his driver pulled up to an airstrip here on a recent day to see a surveillance drone launched.

There to greet the top officer was a civilian contractor from Kirkwood, Mo., named Peter Sunder. His red St. Louis Cardinals cap, black T-shirt and khaki pants stood out from the other men dressed in camouflage.

“What?” 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division Command Sergeant Major Russell Reimers said, taking a long look at Sunder, 36, as he rushed to get ready for launch.

While military personnel are assigned to conduct drone missions, Peter Sunder is among the many private contractors that are needed to help the military keep up with the rising popularity of the unmanned aircraft.

For Sunder, his route to Afghanistan began as an young child tinkering with remote control planes.

Now he controls drones that frequently fly out of this base to scan terrain ahead of troops on missions in dangerous corners of southern Afghanistan.

The drones – technically called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs – fly on autopilot and communicate back to the ground control station in which the operator sits. Cameras mounted on the underbelly of the planes relay images back in real-time.

Soldiers love these drones, which are unarmed, because they are another set of eyes. The machines can pickup telltale body gestures from more than a mile away. The technology can identify and chase an enemy fighter on a motorcycle who, say, planted an IED in a roadway.

Scores of countries are moving forward to develop drones, particularly in the military, but the U.S. is the furthest ahead, partly due to all the practice from long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though Reimers didn’t stick around to see it, Sunder and his crew fired up the rear-mounted rotary engine to the aircraft, technically a RQ-7B Shadow 200, which had a 19-foot wingspan and a range of 68 miles. Mounted to a long launcher, the buzzing drone was catapulted into the sky.

Sunder and a military associate watched from a small office that had the feel of a cockpit, only instead of a stick, there was a trackball similar to the video game Centipede used to adjust the flight path.

The drone climbed to 5,600 feet and easily revealed a truck stopped on a roadway and its driver getting out, perhaps to check the load.

It flew onward, toward its target area to look for signs of enemy to relay back to the Army.

Sunder, who was steady at work, had come a long way since he crashed his first remote control plane on a baseball diamond in Kirkwood.

TAKING TO THE AIR

Sunder’s interest in flying started as a child, when he thought he saw a flock of strange birds flying above Buder Park, near I-44 and Highway 141 in Valley Park. They were remote control planes. From then on he was hooked on all-things-aircraft.

The movie Top Gun and his grandfather’s stories of flying B-24 bombers during World War II were also inspirations.

After getting kicked out of Westminster Christian Academy in Creve Coeur, he went to Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Mo, and eventually became a pilot. He flew for Trans State Airlines, also out of Missouri, and was a flight instructor at Sacman Field, an airport in Columbia, Ill.

He made a shift to flying unmanned aircraft for a living in 2009 and has logged over 3,500 hours of combat flight time.

He operated drones in Iraq. He would only say of that experience: “I saw some very intense stuff.”

He was in northern Afghanistan before he came to this base in April, also home to the Missouri Guard’s 1138th Engineer Company, which often requests drones to scan roadways ahead of route clearance missions.

Sunder works for AAI Corporation, which designs drone aircraft and contracts services with the military. His office is inside a metal container with sticky flypaper hanging from the ceiling.

A new hangar was recently built for the drones at this base, about 25 miles north of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.

ART HILL

Apart from the military aircraft, Sunder has a collection of model planes that he plays with when he has downtime on base, including a bright red glider that he likes to fly from the top of Art Hill in Forest Park when he’s home.

On another recent day, he used a remote control to steer a yellow and black biplane with a 42-inch wingspan out of the hangar. He said he’d always dreamed of having a space so close to a runway.

“Here, I’ve got it in the most unlikely of places,” he said.

The buzzing bi-plane climbed into the sky. Reaching about 500 feet, he let it fall into a tumble and pulled out right above ground, and not far from a hardtop road that goes to Kandahar.

The aerobatics often catch the eye of locals.

“Sometimes I do an air show over the road for the Afghans with the bi-plane,” he said. “Sometimes they stop. I suspect very few people have remote control stuff in Afghanistan.”

He said his toy planes haven’t been shot at, but he’s not against it.

“It would be cool to go back to the U.S. with an AK hole in the wings,” he admitted.

The military birds he flies have a much larger range and size. When time and the mission permits, he’ll sightsee over the rugged landscape.

He’s seen kids swimming in irrigation canals and many farmers working the land.

But usually, he’s glued to bank of computers and monitors for as much as nine hours at a time.

AN EXPANDING TECHNOLOGY

Army Staff Sgt. Brian Weir, of Atlanta, is also a drone operator on base, only he’s active duty military, and makes less money than Sunder.

Some days he likes having contractors, some days he doesn’t.

“It’s a valuable asset because it allows us to provide more coverage, gives us more crew members,” said Weir, 28.

And, he said, he’s investing in a technology that he thinks is only going to expand.

“There’s hope for future jobs,” he said. “When we decide to get out, these are the jobs we’ll be looking for.”

Apart from the military, there’s a push to use drones in law enforcement, homeland security, and even to fly out to record car crash scenes and other events for media outlets.

Drones can map terrain, check infrastructure and take aerial photographs.

The technology can also be armed. While enemy targets have been taken out, without bringing risk to a human pilot, drones are not perfect. Civilians have been killed in aerial attacks in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“There’s no question that drones reduce the loss of innocent Afghans, although it still happens occasionally,” Sunder said.

He flies surveillance drones from this base. During fighting season – non-winter months – he sees frequent enemy engagements.

He said a frustrating part of the job is when he sees something and the military is slow to react to the information.

“What’s going on, don’t we want to do something here?” he said of the experience.

And one drawback from a bird’s eye view is it’s hard to notice changes in elevation.

“It’s not the same as being on the ground,” Sunder said.

But he assured drones will figure prominently in the future, at war, and even many tasks at home.

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