When Mike Fitzsimmons learned he’d be going to Afghanistan to fly something called a ScanEagle, the 18-year Navy veteran who knows his way around the avionics of fighter jets and attack aircraft drew a blank.
“I had to go on the Internet and do some Google searching,” the 44-year-old confessed. “I had no idea what ScanEagle was.”
A lifelong Springfield resident, Fitzsimmons has found himself at the controls of battlefield technology that largely didn’t exist before the Global War on Terrorism.
A member of the Navy Reserve who deployed this spring to Afghanistan, Fitzsimmons pilots an unmanned aircraft system — better known as a drone — mostly in support of special operations.
“This is cutting-edge stuff,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Weighing just 30 pounds, the ScanEagle is armed only with an infrared camera, making Fitzsimmons the eyes in the sky at 16,000 feet.
An HVAC technician in civilian life, he’ll follow special operations personnel into the field or scan an area before they go, simultaneously guiding the UAS through the air and watching what the camera sees.
“You want to protect those guys as much as possible,” he said. “Special Forces guys are a rare breed.”
The ScanEagle, he said, is good at catching enemy fighters in the act of burying improvised explosive devices.
During a war that enters its 12th year in October, remotely piloted aircraft bearing such names as Predator and Reaper have emerged as the conflict’s signature planes, grabbing the spotlight from the manned F-15s and A-10s of the first Gulf War.
Technology has evolved so much that even Fitzsimmons’ recent phone connection from Afghanistan made it sound as if he were only across town — never mind the fact he had to apologize for the artillery fire in the background.
“One of the things I miss is our dinners together,” said Pam Fitzsimmons, his wife of only 10 months who wishes he were, in fact, only across town.
The two had planned on marrying this past April, but when Mike Fitzsimmons got his orders last year, they moved the wedding up to September.
“I didn’t want to come over here without her being my wife,” Mike Fitzsimmons said.
Every Tuesday, Pam Fitzsimmons faithfully mails a care package to her husband containing snacks and other amenities. A recent package included a DVD of “The Green Berets” for her husband, a huge John Wayne fan.
Each box is numbered.
“I’m on my 14th box,” she said recently. “And I have 23 to go.”
“I’ve sent him so many packages,” she added, “they call his hut the Fitzy Snack Shack.”
Mike Fitzsimmons, whose given name is Fred Michael Fitzsimmons II, initially joined the Navy after graduating in 1987 from Catholic Central High School, becoming an aviation electronics technician on the A-6 Intruder and EA-6B Prowler.
“I was really interested in naval aircraft,” he recalled.
However, he’s so far only spent 45 days at sea.
“More interested in aviation, less interested in ship life,” he said.
Coming home in 1993 to Springfield — he’s serving his first year as grand knight of Knights of Columbus Council 624 on Bird Road — Fitzsimmons joined the Navy Reserve in January 2002.
“A lot of it was feeling patriotic,” he explained, “like I needed to do something.”
Through the reserve, the Navy surprisingly has a presence in all 50 states. Fitzsimmons serves with the Navy Operational Support Center in Columbus, drilling there and in Virginia Beach. The latter gives him the opportunity to work on F-18s.
Deployed to Iraq in 2005, Fitzsimmons worked with special operations, signing off on the Seahawk helicopters that would insert and extract SEALs.
“Those guys roll in and it’s like nothing in the world is bothering them,” he said. “It’s just a pleasure to work with those guys.”
Mobilized for this latest deployment in October, Fitzsimmons first was sent to the West Coast for several months to Boeing-Insitu to learn to operate the ScanEagle, which the company has produced for the Navy and Marines since 2004.
The aircraft launches from a catapult and returns to the ground by catching a rope on a boom.
“To be a reservist and to be mobilized, it’s like winning the lottery,” he said of his job, adding that he could have been put in charge of monitoring detainees or guarding a base.
A one-man crew, Fitzsimmons flies daily for eight to 12 hours at a time.
“You’re task-saturated with this aircraft,” he said. “You have to be glued to the screen.”
With the majority of U.S. combat troops slated to leave Afghanistan next year, Fitzsimmons said there’s a “sense that it’s soon going to be over.”
“The writing is on the wall,” he said, “but in the military, that writing is often in Jello.”