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Sunday, June 24, 2012
Tucsonan Bob Bishop has traded a hall-of-fame career as an air show pilot for a new job: human target.
Bishop was used to being the focus of thousands of fans as he roared across the sky in the world’s smallest jet.
Now, as a subcontractor to the U.S. military, his job is to evade the electronic crosshairs of some of the nation’s most advanced aircraft and missile-defense radar systems.
Bishop and his Marana-based company, Aerial Productions International Inc., build and fly a modified version of the Bede BD-5J, the world’s smallest manned jet aircraft at just 12 feet long and under 500 pounds, with a 17-foot wingspan.
“It’s like an Indy car you go way up in — in fact, shoe size 11 is the max,” said the 5-foot-4-inch-tall Bishop, as he looked over the plane at his company’s hangar at Marana Northwest Regional Airport.
Yet the plane’s diminutive size and unique shape were just what the military was looking for when it began studying how to detect and counter subsonic cruise missiles more than a decade ago.
“When the radar hits it, it just keeps going. It isn’t reflected back,” Bishop said.
And even if he’s detected, Bishop’s not afraid of pilots drawing a serious bead on him.
“You’re not really worried about someone shooting at you. They’re not supposed to be armed ... I’m told,” he said with a laugh.
While the Pentagon and major defense contractors including Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems are busy trying to erect a shield against ballistic missiles — long-range threats that fly in an arced trajectory — shorter range, slower cruise missiles are seen as perhaps a bigger threat.
Among the cruise-missile threats are several Soviet-era anti-ship missiles that have been modified by nations including China, Iran and, prior to 2002, Iraq, military analysts say.
The fear is that shorter-range cruise missiles could be launched from international waters off the U.S. coast to hit major cities, said military analyst John Pike, Globalsecurity.org director.
“If you think about how hard it is to build an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) — and how much effort the U.S. is putting into defending against that — it would be much easier to shoot a missile off a ship down in the Caribbean, and the U.S. isn’t doing anything to deal with that to speak of,” Pike said.
One example, Pike said, is the Soviet-era Styx cruise missile, which is in the arsenals of China and Iran, and the similar Silkworm and Seersucker missiles made by China.
That’s where Bishop’s little plane — now known as the Small Manned Aerial Radar Target, Model 1 (SMART-1) — comes in.
“We’re really representative of a lower-tech cruise missile, not a supersonic, terrain-hugging, Mach 3 missile — actually, we can see those,” Bishop said. “We have a harder time with the slower stuff, the softball pitch.”
Bishop’s current role as a manned target began in 1999, when he was asked to act as a test target for the Joint Cruise Missile Defense Group, a five-year program to evaluate the nation’s cruise-missile defense capabilities.
A wakeup call came after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Saddam Hussein fired five Seersucker missiles at Kuwait, including one that hit a shopping mall.
“We didn’t ‘see’ any of them,” Bishop said. “I got a call the next day after that one, saying ‘we’ve got some work to do.’ “
Since that program ended, Bishop has continued to play target in tests and war games for all the military services, plus the Department of Homeland Security.
Bishop can’t talk about everything he does, but he and his three other test pilots have been kept busy flying and building new planes to keep up with demand.
The company’s aircraft have been classified by the Pentagon as a “Type I Cruise Missile Surrogate,” Bishop said, adding that the description of that type is classified.
Bishop’s company works as a subcontractor to Arinc Inc., a longtime defense contractor based in Annapolis, Md.
While the military also uses recoverable drones as targets, the local company’s work has been invaluable in helping the military evaluate missile-defense systems, particularly near populated areas where drones are deemed too risky, said Larry McNew, a retired Air Force colonel who headed the Joint Cruise Missile Defense Group and now directs operations engineering/innovation for Arinc.
“His service provided exactly what we wanted. It gave us certainly a degree of freedom to have a more robust evaluation, and with a man in the system it increased our safety,” McNew said.
The manned target flights also are less costly than drone operations, he added.
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