3:07 p.m. February 7, 2013

Welcome to Drone Country

Two days ago, out on a salt flat in the Mojave Desert, I had my first run-in with a Predator drone.

I was rummaging around in the back seat of my car trying to find my cellphone, when my friend Dave spotted it swooping down towards us.

It looked like a simple glider plane at first. But soon enough it was unmistakably a drone: thin body, long oversized rectangular wings and the distinctive downward v-tail of a General Atomics Predator. It came in low and slow, sweeping over us in a graceful arc like a large bird circling its prey.

I looked left and right. Way out beyond the lake, a car was speeding down a dirt road, shooting up a cloud of dust. Other than that, there wasn’t anyone or anything in sight. We stood alone in the middle of a dry lakebed—a flat expanse of cracked, sun-baked mud. The heat rose in waves from the ground, giving it a silver sheen that rippled as if it was water lapping against a lake shore. On the horizon, scorched brown mountains of sharp boulders and rocks surrounded us on every side.

I looked around again, suddenly getting paranoid.

We weren’t in Kandahar, and there was no Pashtun wedding party in sight. The nearest Afghani village was about 8,000 miles away. But for a brief moment, I could see what an Afghani peasant sees… and imagine what he must feel when suddenly confronted with a drone hovering menacingly in the sky above. It was virtually silent, which I suppose is the whole point.

Like the Afghanis, we were sitting ducks in this wide open desert landscape. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. In fact, there’s not much we could do but stop and gawk at the sleek drone circling overhead…and wonder about the pilots operating the Predator from an air conditioned bunker somewhere far away. What were they looking at? Could they see us? Were our names on Obama’s secret U.S. citizen kill list?

“I’d never seen one fly so low before,” Dave yelped as the Predator buzzed overhead, its rear propeller finally audible.

Dave was born and raised in Victorville, his dad served in the Air Force and he’s been around military drones since the day they started rolling off the production line. In the 90s, just out of high school, Dave scored a gig with the Pinkertons guarding an early drone prototype in an air field nearby. But this low fly over took him by surprise…

Welcome to Drone Country.

El Mirage is a desert hick outpost in the Mojave Desert about 10 miles west of Adelanto. It is also home to a R&D drone facility run by General Atomics, an aerospace defense contractor and a pioneer in drone technology.

You might not be familiar with the General Atomics name, but you’ve certainly seen their drones: the company makes both the Predator and Reaper UAVs that are currently flying surveillance and attack missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. General Atomics drones are by far the most widely used by U.S. armed forces. The Guardian estimated that in 2012, the U.S. military had somewhere around 250 GA drones in its arsenal.

The Los Angeles Times described General Atomics founder Thomas J. Cassidy Jr. as an “unmanned aircraft pioneer” and "father of the remotely controlled Predator drone that has redefined warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Cassidy’s company helped usher in our modern era of drone warfare, and a lot of its work took place right here above the dry El Mirage lakebed.

On the weekends, El Mirage gets filled with the smell of gasoline, the deafening roar of unmuffled engines and crowds of desert hicks racing their dirt bikes, dune buggies, ATVs and souped-up monster car golf carts. It’s like a scene out of Mad Max, except that most of these wasteland warriors are morbidly obese and diabetic, and wouldn’t survive a day in a real post-apocalyptic world.

But during the rest of the week, the lakebed attracts a different type of hardware enthusiast: military men and defense contractors doing drone tech testing and training.

I first came out to El Mirage in 2009, after being tipped off that General Atomics was testing some kind of new stealth jet drone. But I was out of luck: by the time I arrived, a nasty desert wind had come out of nowhere and was kicking up a sandstorm that engulfed the entire lake bed and brought visibility down to less than a foot. The drone test was scrapped early. I got there just in time to see a couple of guys from a San Diego military contractor packing up their gear—some sort of communication apparatus designed to jam and/or intercept a drone’s video signal.

General Atomics is known to sell its drones to other countries, and a steady stream of foreign military types come through its El Mirage facility for drone demonstrations and training. Last time I was here locals at a nearby dive bar told me that a group of 50 Italian air force officers had come through for drone training.

Drones are in high demand, and drone pilots are in short supply. General Atomics is always looking for a few more top guns to pilot their drone fleet. Pay’s pretty good, too—average salary for drone pilots in El Mirage is nearly six figures!

And General Atomics isn’t the only one flying drones out here. The Air National Guard recently made the nearby decommissioned Air Force base in north Victorville a permanent home for its drone fleet of GA Reapers and Predators. NASA’s got a few drones to monitor wildfires. And the U.S. Air Force is here too, playing around with its own peculiar drone designs. One of USAF’s most recent toys was a Boeing creation called Hummingbird…although there bit of false advertising going on here. The Hummingbirddrone doesn’t operate like a real hummingbird at all. It’s just a regular ol’ helicopter shrunk down to drone size.

With all these drones buzzing around under the control of novices, it’s no surprise that they fall out of the sky every now and then. Two drones collided on a runway just last summer. In 2010, two drones—a Predator and a Reaper—crashed and burned in separate accidents here as well. It’s not just drones, either. In 2009, a F–22 fighter jet—the most expensive and useless jet ever made—fell out of the sky near El Mirage. Apparently, the test pilot had very little time to eject and went down with the plane in a ball of flame. Hey, this is the price we pay for progress—and our freedom. And it’s worth it!

…No sooner had the drone cleared us, a small loud Cessna plane with red stripes came out of the clouds and began closing in on the drone in fast pursuit. Was this drone learning to dog fight? Or was the Cessna getting a couple of sweet clips of the drone in flight for a General Atomics promotional video?

Whatever was going on, I was just glad that, unlike the poor suckers at a Pashtun wedding, I was able to watch it fly quietly away.