Marines in Afghanistan are beginning to see more of the K-MAX helicopter, designed to carry up to 4,000 pounds of cargo to U.S. forces in remote locations without a pilot. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
- Filed Under
COMBAT OUTPOST PAYNE, Afghanistan — The slender gray helicopter chattered in from the open desert, a sling hanging beneath it as it glided to this Marine base in Helmand province.
The novelty for those nearby: No one was onboard.
Marines in Afghanistan are beginning to see more of the K-MAX Cargo Unmanned Aerial System, a pilotless helicopter designed to carry up to 4,000 pounds of gear and supplies to U.S. forces in remote locations. Built by Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace, it was first fielded in Afghanistan late last year and is increasingly used across the theater.
The Oct. 4 flight to Payne delivered nearly 2,000 pounds of supplies to Marines with Combat Logistics Regiment 15, who were aboard Payne to open a mobile PX store. They had supplies in shipping containers aboard two 10-wheel Logistics Vehicle System Replacement trucks, but after visiting other nearby bases, had run out of some popular items, said Staff Sgt. Jonas Thomas, a morale, welfare, recreation specialist manning the mobile store.
On Oct. 2, Thomas' team requested an unmanned aerial resupply so its Warrior Express service team could continue visiting Marines. The bird arrived at Payne two days later, hauling everything from chewing tobacco and energy drinks to hygiene products, Thomas said.
"We wanted to make sure that everyone has the same opportunity as those who see us first on the mission," he said.
The narrow, pointy-nosed K-MAX never landed. It hovered over Payne for a few minutes, descending low enough to ease four pallet-sized shipping containers to the ground in a net slung beneath the aircraft.
The Marines said the K-MAX flew from Camp Dwyer, the Corps' second largest base in Afghanistan. It's operated downrange by Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.
"It was nice to get this hooked up for us," said Sgt. Colin Moreau, another member of CLR-15 at Payne. "This way, we won't be sweating bullets when we get to the last stop and someone says, ‘Hey, where's the toothpaste? Where's the Camel Lites? You're supposed to have them."
Marine officials first issued an urgent needs statement for an unmanned aerial cargo system in 2010, reasoning it would reduce the number of convoys needed on Afghanistan's treacherous, bomb-laden roads.
Two K-MAX helicopters have been downrange with Marines for most of the year, delivering more than 1 million pounds of cargo, Lockheed Martin told Marine Corps Times earlier this year.
On average, the two deployed K-MAX helos fly about six missions per night, said Terry Fogarty, general manager for the unmanned aerial systems product group at Kaman Aerospace, the helicopter's original builder.
They're able to fly up to 100 nautical miles roundtrip, depending on cargo payload. Flying primarily from large bases to smaller FOBs, they can accomplish resupply missions in less than an hour that would take 12 to 15 hours by ground convoy, he said.
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">James K. Sanborn contributed to this report.