A history of Predator from the ultimate insider



On 3 March, the US Air Force accepted the last MQ-1B Predator (shown above) from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., closing the book on a paradigm-breaking 16-year run.

Frank Pace was one of the original employees of Abe Karem’s Leading Systems, which designed Amber for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early 1980s. The Amber was modified to become the GNAT 750, which was modified to become the Predator after Leading Systems went bankrupt and its assets were acquired by Neil Blue’s General Atomics.

Now Pace is president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), the maker of the air force’s Predator, the army’s Gray Eagle, the more powerful Reaper and the jet-powered Avenger.

But Pace kindly spent about 30 minutes with me earlier this week recalling the Predator’s pioneering emergence in the 1990s as the unmanned (sorry, remotely piloted – ahem) aircraft that changed … well, everything. Pace spoke candidly of the circumstances that led to Leading Systems’ bankruptcy, the key challenges overcome during the Predator’s breakthrough deployment to Bosnia in 1995 and what it takes to introduce an innovative product in the military aircraft industry (Pace’s tip: Whatever you do, don’t listen to the customer!)

TRIMBLE: I’ve heard various histories about how Predator moving from Leading Systems to General Atomics, and then began it’s trajectory within, you know, the CIA and the Department of Defense. But I’d love to hear your perspective on that as someone who was with Abe Karem at Leading Systems and was part of that transition.

PACE: I was the seventh employee at Leading Systems, and we grew to about 120, I think. The main program at Leading Systems was the Amber program, which was a high-altitude, long-endurance, high-Reynolds number type of airplane. So near the end of that run at Leading Systems we made a simpler airplane called the GNAT 750 with the same basic avionics as the Amber, and that was going to be an export version. We bid a derivative of the Amber for the short range program with the army. We lost that program. The company was essentially blackballed. The put all the airplanes in storage because they didn’t want them out because they were clearly better than the airplane they selected. I’m not saying they made a wrong choice. Abe’s company was a very small company and it was going to be like a billion dollar program. In any event that’s what happened.

So the GNAT 750 was an asset that was – we were building some of those hoping to get a program from Turkey but that didn’t materialize before we ran out of money. General Atomics took over the company – they didn’t really take over the company; they took over the assets out of bankruptcy and brought on about 10 employees from Leading Systems. Then Tom Cassidy was put in charge of that group. At that time that was part of General Atomics. It wasn’t a separate company — not until ’93. We did some early work actually sold a system to Turkey in 92 – a GNAT 750 system. When this predator event rolled around — that was in ’93 — we had already done a demo program where we put this big pod on top of the airplane. It almost looked like a whale — the wetted area was almost as big as the airplane. … That was the first airplane – the GNAT 750 carrying this pod – was the first unmanned airplane control by satellite. That was a demonstration program. When the Predator program came around we already had that under our belts. We already had the GNAT 750 flying, so were kind of a natural, and the only question we had was whether we just put this pod on top of the GNAT 750 and just bid that because it was low-risk. And in the proposal we also put an option in and that was basically the Predator design as you know it now. That was an option we put in our proposal, and the NAVAIR program office said they would prefer to go with the option.

TRIMBLE: Sorry, it was a NAVAIR joint program office? I thought it was DARPA.

PACE: No, Amber was DARPA under Leading Systems. The Predator program was run out of the NAVAIR joint program office. It was specifically created for UAV’s. … At the time it was directed by I think Congress and this happened in about 1989 – almost the exact same time as they did this army program — the short range program. I can’t remember the detailed dates. It pulled all the UAV activity away from the services, and put it in this joint program office. It was one of the reasons why I think Leading Systems went bankrupt because there was a big gap there while this program office was figuring out what they were going to do. We weren’t able to go market to individual services for $3-4 million, which would have kept us alive.

TRIMBLE: I guess they eventually got that sorted out. How did that work out?

PACE: Eventually the short range program went under them and the Predator program is just kind of an anomaly. It wasn’t really in the joint program office plan, but I think high-level people in the defense industry and OSD wanted this type of an airplane and thought it could be done and they wanted to do it very quickly and so they made a mandate. It was an ACTD, but they also mandated that the contract be awarded 45 days after the RFP was let. As you know now is, you know, crazy. Normally, you give people 45 days just to turn in the proposal, or 60, and the government takes another 9 months to figure out who to give it to. So they gave us this RFP in November of ’93. We had 8 days to do it, I remember that. I can’t remember if it was eight working days or eight calendar days but I know it was over thanksgiving. And then they did a best and final over Christmas. And we got the contract award on January 7 of ’94. And they met their 45 days.

TRIMBLE: And that was the ACTD based on the GNAT 750?

PACE: Our proposal was based on the GNAT 750 demo airplane but then we sketched an option in there of the actual Predator aircraft in the proposal and that’s the one they actually selected for us to go under contract and make.

TRIMBLE: And then you had Roving Sands in ’95 and those exercises. That was the first time the military got to see how the aircraft worked right?

PACE: Yeah, that’s correct. We flew the airplane [first]. We had a goal to fly it in 6 months. That was extremely challenging because they picked the option airplane, so we had to do all-new tooling for the fuselage and everything else. So we designed, built and flew this airplane in four days less than 6 months. We flew it on july 3. And then we went down to for Fort Huachuca in October 1994. So we did a lot of demonstrations down there and trained some army pilots. The army was selcted to operate the airplane. We went to the Florida Keys once. And then we deployed into theatre 18 months after we got the original contract in July of ’95.

TRIMBLE: And that was in the Balkans?

PACE: The Balkans, correct.

TRIMBLE: I hadn’t quite connected how fast that moved.

PACE: We actually didn’t have the Ku satellite capability. That was running behind. So we deployed with just a UHF satellite capability, which didn’t work very well at all. The Ku wideband satellite with the Raymer dish and everything that we know of today arrived about 2 months later. That’s when things started working well. The first two months we were just kind of practicing because the difference was on UHF satellite you would get a picture about every 3 seconds or 4 seconds versus real time video with the wideband Ku. It basically made it impossible for the guy to steer the payload. He had to just point at places on the map to look. It wasn’t at all the system we have it now. But two months later, in September timeframe, we actually had the whole system pretty as we have today. A lot of improvements have been made voer the years, but the in general it operates pretty much what we have today by September of 1995. That was all operated by the Army. A lot of people don’t realize that.

TRIMBLE: And then there was a period from Bosnia from Afghanistan, where not a whole lot seemed to happen but there was a still a commitment to the program. How did it look from the inside?

PACE: The way it was from the inside was there was not a huge commitment. The big change came for us in 1996 when the air force took over the program. I don’t know if the army really wanted it or what the situation was. But the air force took the program over. … But the air force took over the program and made a commitment to it. They were going to set up at the time it was called Indian Springs — now it’s called Creech. They were going to set up a permanent base out there. So they mad e a fairly big commitment – the air force did at the time. But they were going to buy a total of 16 ground stations and I think 64 airplanes and they saw this thing as a much smaller need than it’s turned out to be for this irregular warfare. It’s taken the whole country several years to really understand what the current mission is. Gen Jumper put Hellfires on the Predator long before 9/11. So the air force was committed but not to the number of orbits that are being demanded today. They were committed to having up to 7 orbits up at any one time. The demand for the product and the need for it has drastically changed since Iraq and Afghanistan and now they’re trying to get up to 65 orbits.

TRIMBLE: There were also so many things that did not happen during that time. It seems to me that is unusual at least in my experience with this that there wasn’t a very large manufacturer in the defense industry with established ties in this area that wanted to either gobble you up or take you down – you know one or the other.  Or maybe there was and it just didn’t come to fruition. And so many talk about that challenge in the defense and industry and bringing in new companies and certainly General Atomics is a much bigger company now than it was then, but it’s still fairly small by these standards. What is your perspective on how that occurred in that time period when your program was very vulnerable to something like that it seems? 

PACE: I would say that not only did the air force not under the scope of this. I think the larger companies didn’t either. The larger companies were focusing on other things like replacement for fighters and things like that. So the next UCAV. A lot of folks at Northrop and Boeing were going in that direction and ISR was just kind of a much smaller thing, and traditionally it has been much smaller. If you look at the sales of ISR airplanes versus air to air and air to ground airplanes it is much smaller. I think the Predator program — it was originally a $33 million contract. I think people thought – oh yeah, maybe it’s going to grow-up to be 200 million total business or something like that, but the big money which is what these big companies need to survive, was all going to be in UCAS. I don’t think there was really an appreciation that this segment we are in was going to be a popular segment until probably 2005. It’s all because of the irregular warfare. If we were still gearing ourselves to do battle with the Russians and the Chinese, the Predator A is basically useless against a company of that significance. But that’s not what were doing battle against right now. I think the larger companies felt that ISR would not dominate – that’s why I think they didn’t try to take us down.

And the reason we weren’t gobbled up is I think that Neil Blue just doesn’t want to sell. He’s had offers you know. I don’t know anything about those offers but I don’t think it was because it wasn’t enough money. I think he just wants to remain independent. That’d be why we weren’t gobbled up because I know we have had people come in and talk to him about it.

TRIMBLE: Are there any broader lessons that you draw from the experience that can apply to anybody trying to bring in an innovative product into the industry and make it successful?

PACE:: Well, [pause]I don’t know for sure; I’d have to think about it. We’ve always tried to do what we thought was right for the customer. And sometimes — It’s not as much so now but back in those days we had a lot more knowledge about this area than what the customer did. So we weren’t driven as much in those days about what the customer was saying. It was what we felt was the right thing to do. Nowadays that’s changed quite a bit because all those services have people that are experienced with unmanned aircraft. Those people can actually come up with the right things to do pretty much. We’re not as mavericky as we used to be for a couple reasons. One is we’re a larger company. But the other is the customer is more knowledgeable. Back in ’94 the air force had never even flown an unmanned aircraft of this kind of type. They had some other things in the past but not an aircraft of this particular type so we had a lot more knowledge about it than they did.

So they put us with Big Safari and that was an ideal arrangement at the time because big safari was very good at rapid reaction programs. We put a small team out here and just worked together to do quick solutions.

I guess the only thing I would say if you’re in a brand new technology that you’re initial customer really doesn’t know much about, you need to do the right thing more than be driven what might be coming out of the requirements because they don’t necessarily know. That’ really contingent on the fact that there’s people that really don’t know. But in some industries that really doesn’t apply. It doesn’t apply in UAV’s today. There’s so many people in the armed services now who have experience with UAVs. That doesn’t really apply to the UAV market right now. But say you were talking about a Laser weapon or something like that. So if you were going to bring a laser weapons to market the likelihood that somebody has a lot of knowledge about in the standard military is very low so you might want to figure out what you think is right and keep pushing what you think is right because eventually that could be a winner.

The one thing we pushed from the very beginning was endurance and you know people would say you don’t need that type of endurance. Well, now endurance is one of the most important things they look for in an airplane. That was the case if you look at the spec’s coming out in those early days it was a lot less than that. Predator was the first spec that wanted 24h of endurance. All the rest wanted 8 to 10 hours or something.

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2 Responses to A history of Predator from the ultimate insider

  1. Mike Gething 17 March, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    Cracking interview Steve – well done – a splendid insight into the Predator’s history.

  2. Stephen Trimble 18 March, 2011 at 12:00 am #

    Thanks, Mike. Nice hearing from you!

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