Warplanes: The Unwanted Heron Becomes A Superstar


April 2, 2016: In early 2016 Israel decided to add up to six more Heron TP (also known as Eitan or Heron 2) UAVs by the end of 2016. This came after Germany decided to lease three to five Heron TPs instead of the similar American Reaper. Despite some reliability problems (and several crashes) since it entered service in 2008 the Heron TP has proved to be very useful as a surveillance aircraft and could also carry missiles as needed.

The last Heron TP reliability crises began in 2012 when a Heron TP crashed and all Israeli Air Force Heron TPs were grounded. It was seven months before they were allowed to fly again. The investigation concluded that the crash was due to a manufacturing, not a design, flaw. For a while there were doubts about the durability and reliability of the Heron TP. During the investigation some government officials called for selling off the few Heron TPs the air force had because the aircraft was too expensive to buy and operate. Israel has less expensive UAVs (like the Heron 1) that get the work done at a lower cost. But the accident investigation made it clear that the Heron TP was a capable aircraft that could benefit from some more manufacturing quality control. That appears to have turned things around.

The Heron TP entered squadron service in the Israeli Air Force (with 210 Squadron) in 2009. The UAV's first combat service was in 2010, when it was used off the coast of Gaza, keeping an eye on ships seeking to run the blockade. The aircraft was well suited for that kind of work. But so are smaller and cheaper UAVs.

Development of the Heron TP was largely completed in 2007, mainly for the export market. That was because the Israeli military was in no rush to buy it. There have a growing number of export sales and the Israeli air force eventually realized that this was an ideal UAV for long range operations or for maritime patrol. But it turned out there were few missions like that. Despite that uses were found to make the most of unique Heron TP features (long endurance, large carrying capacity, very high operating altitude). Turns out there were a lot of applications that made the most of these unique characteristics, most Israel will not discuss openly.

Equipped with a powerful (1,200 horsepower) turboprop engine, the 4.6 ton Heron TP can operate at 14,500 meters (45,000 feet, 50 percent higher than Heron 1). That is, above commercial air traffic, and all the air-traffic-control regulations that discourage, and often forbid, UAVs fly at the same altitude as commercial aircraft. The Heron TP has a one ton payload, enabling it to carry sensors that can give a detailed view of what's on the ground, even from that high up. The endurance of 36 hours makes the Heron TP a competitor for the U.S. five ton MQ-9 Reaper. The big difference between the two is that Reaper is designed to be a combat aircraft, operating at a lower altitude, with less endurance, and able to carry a ton of smart bombs or missiles. Heron TP is meant mainly for reconnaissance and surveillance, and Israel wants to keep a closer, and more persistent, eye on Syria and southern Lebanon. But the Heron TP has since been rigged to carry a wide variety of missiles and smart bombs and can easily be rigged to carry more fuel and extend its endurance to 60 hours.


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