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Navy unveils unmanned-aircraft squadron at NAS Jacksonville

Planes will give 24-hour surveillance for Navy operations around world

NAS JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new era began Friday for the Navy in Jacksonville as it unveiled an unmanned-aircraft squadron that will be operated at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

A new commanding officer took over the squadron, which is designated to operate and maintain the MQ-4C “Triton” unmanned-aerial system.

The future of patrol and reconnaissance aircraft at NAS Jacksonville began Friday with the establishment of VUP-19, the squadron that will operate the drones.

“This is a day that is years in the making,” said Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, commander, patrol and reconnaissance group.

With a 130-foot wingspan -- the size of a 757 -- the new aircraft will be able to fly at 50,000 feet, giving a 24-hour view of whatever operating area the Navy is monitoring.

“Twenty-four hour intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is something that will provide unparalleled information to our forward-fleet commanders,” said Cmdr. Benjamin Stinespring, commanding officer of VUP-19.

Stinespring said there have been sleepless nights over the last few months leading up to the milestone event, but he knows what an asset the drones will be.

The planes won’t be based in Jacksonville, but they will be operated from here as they fly all over the world. Even having a day like this is something many dreamed of but weren’t sure was possible.

“This has always been the unicorn. You grow up in a Navy like this. We flew the P-3 for almost 50 years,” Cozad said. “To think about this coming from dream to reality, it makes me pinch myself every day.”

The planes will be a complement to the P-8s, allowing them to focus more on anti-submarine operations.

And while pilots love being in the cockpit, there will be none of that with VUP-19, known as “Big Red.”

That alone is going to be a culture change for the men and women who are a part of it, but one that is welcomed.

“It will be new for us culturally, for sure, but at the end of the day, what this provides the fleet commanders is very satisfying to what these officers are trying to do,” Stinespring said.

There are currently about 70 members in the squadron based in Jacksonville. That number will eventually grow to close to 200.

Once fully operational, VUP-19 will consist of approximately 550 personnel who will simultaneously control multiple Triton missions 24 hours a day from one of three mission-control stations providing  surveillance and reconnaissance around the globe.