Boeing to test drones in area

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Flight training for a Boeing-designed robotic airplane, dubbed the ScanEagle, will be conducted at the Melrose Bombing Range beginning this summer, according to Boeing spokesperson Chick Ramey.

The range is a 66,000-acre swath of land located west of Cannon Air Force Base, which serves as the primary training site of the 27th Fighter Wing. The wing’s F-16 jets, however, were assigned to other military installations as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Process. Department of Defense officials were asked to find a new mission for Cannon, or close the base by 2010, as part of that base closure round.

Air Force officials did not respond to a request for information on Boeing’s interest in the Clovis area.

A spokesperson for Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M., said he could not “make a direct link between what Boeing has decided and what we expect to be a positive outcome for Cannon later this year.”

But he said the senator is “optimistic that the Boeing decision fits in with what Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon are moving toward — joint mission facilities to support what the defense department needs.”

Initial staffing for the Boeing training endeavor at Melrose is estimated at less than 20, Ramey wrote Wednesday in an e-mail to the Clovis News Journal.

Training for military personnel who would operate the unmanned 4-foot aerial vehicles will likely be held in Clovis Community College classrooms, Ramey wrote in the e-mail. Negotiations for the use of the classrooms is still under way, officials said on Wednesday.

Instructors supplied by Boeing would likely teach military students in the classrooms, according to Clovis Community College administrator Tom Drake.

“We haven’t finalized anything yet, but we are working toward an agreement,” Drake said.

The college won’t experience any immediate growth as a result of an arrangement with Boeing, Drake said. But that “depends on what Boeing foresees and plans,” he said.

The Marines and Navy have used ScanEagles for intelligence and reconnaissance work in Iraq, according to Boeing officials. Boeing officials said the drones send detailed real-time video images to military personnel on the ground.

The commercial and military aircraft giant has a contract to supply an undisclosed number of ScanEagles to the Army and the Navy, Ramey previously indicated. The unmanned aerial vehicle had its first successful flight about four years ago, according to the Boeing Web site.

“Clovis was chosen (as a testing site) due to its airspace access, weather, infrastructure and affordability,” Ramey wrote in the e-mail.

The plane can soar to heights of 16,000 feet, but usually flies at 1,600 feet, Ramey said.