© 2023 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Syracuse Hancock Field first in US to launch drones in commercial airspace

Tom Magnarelli
MQ-9 at Hancock Field

The first MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft or drones were launched from Hancock Field next to Syracuse's Hancock International Airport. The operation was the first in the country to fly unmanned aircraft into airspace around a commercial airport.

Col. Greg Semmel of the 174th Attack Wing said the Federal Aviation Administration wants to integrate unmanned aircraft technology into the national airspace system and they were strong supporters of flying the aircraft out of Hancock Field.

“We’re on the leading edge here so I think what you’ll see is more of the same: this technology, remotely piloted aircraft flying from civilian airports, as we as a nation get more comfortable with this technology and as we continue to integrate it into the national airspace system,” Semmel said.

Semmel said there is also extraordinary demand for remotely piloted aircraft on combat missions.

“Every combatant commander around this globe wants this mission," Semmel said. "It’s that important to combatant commanders around the globe so that’s put some stresses on the community."

Semmel is required to double the number of MQ-9 student pilots and sensor operators to more than 100 at Hancock Field for next year. About $1 million will be saved each year from flying MQ-9s out of Hancock rather than driving to Fort Drum every time they want to launch an aircraft. The aircraft launching from Syracuse will not be carrying any weapons and will continue to train in restricted airspace east of Fort Drum. Aircraft with weapons will still be launched from Fort Drum.  

“This is a very safe airplane," Semmel said. "They are in constant contact with air traffic control with multiple radios in the airplane. To the other piolet out in the air in a manned airplane that’s flying around maybe talking to air traffic control, it won’t be any different.”

Ursula Rozum is a member of the Syracuse Peace Council which has protested the use of drones a number of times at Hancock Field.

“The civilian death toll is in great part fueling the rise of anti-U.S. sentiment and anti-Western sentiment,” Rozum said.

She said the vast majority of people hit by weapons of unmanned aircraft are civilians, which can breed anti-U.S. sentiment and terrorism. Rozum fears launching out of Hancock could make the area a potential target.

But Col. Semmel said, 99 percent of the time these unmanned aircraft are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance when on missions. Students at Hancock will be flying about three training missions a day.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.