January 31, 2023

Crashes and UFO Reports? It’s the 50s Again at Pax River

X-47B UCAS-D

By Jay Friess
Editor

X-47B UCAS-D

As Pax River tests drones like this X-47B UCAS-D, accidents will happen.

It’s been a high-profile week for the unmanned aircraft of Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Tuesday saw the crash of a Global Hawk drone on the Eastern Shore, and, last night, the Internet filled with reports of a “UFO” on the Beltway as another X-47B UCAS demonstrator made its way to Pax River via truck.

Plane crashes and UFO sightings? It’s like the 1950s all over again around here.

I’m not old enough to remember the 1950s, but I confess I spent a lot of time lollygagging in archives of The Enterprise newspaper as a cub reporter, reading yellowed reports of the plane crashes that almost seemed routine in Mid-Century Lexington Park, Maryland.

I was assigned at the time to cover the St. Mary’s County Commissioners as they were in the process of drafting new land use rules. That was the first time I was introduced to the concept of the Air Installation Compatible Use Zone (AICUZ), the swath of low-density zoning that surrounds the base and protects it from development encroachment.

The concept seemed ridiculous to me then. By the time I came along in the 1970s, experimental Navy aircraft were no longer falling out of the sky like rain. There were no more legendary crash landings on Great Mills Road. Aeronautics had advanced and matured. The Wild West was over.

As I was growing up, Lexington Park paid a heavy economic price for the AICUZ, even as the rest of the county reaped the windfall of the base. The zone prevented any dense redevelopment of the downtown core, so development crept up Route 235 into California. The Park fell into a slow decline. Still, the Navy stridently defended the AICUZ over the last two decades, and county government ensured that it stayed in place. This increasingly looks like a wise move.

Because the Wild West is back, folks. The advancements in remote and autonomous aircraft being tested at Pax River today are some of the most significant changes to the world of aviation since the advent of the jet engine. Pax River engineers are teaching aircraft to fly themselves, land themselves and avoid other aircraft, all by themselves.

There are going to be accidents in this complex process.

So, maybe it’s a good thing that the AICUZ remains in place, preventing developers from building office buildings and densely-populated apartments in the possible flight paths of unpredictable experimental drones. Maybe the next crash won’t be in a remote swamp. This is not out of the realm of possibility. Two years ago, a Fire Scout helicopter drone wandered away from Webster Outlying Field in St. Inigoes and meandered up through California and Hollywood on it’s way to Washington, D.C. airspace. The Navy almost shot it down, but managed to regain control of it.

The AICUZ will remain, and Lexington Park will continue to bear its burden. But the Park’s business and community leaders are not going to take this lying down. The Lexington Park Business and Community Association is fighting to change the image of the Park, encouraging county residents again embrace the birthplace of St. Mary’s County economic rise. There may not be any new offices, apartments or shops coming, but their will be festivals, art projects and recapitalization.

Come and see the revival of the Park for yourself. Just keep one eyeball on the sky.

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