The Billionaire Brothers Behind America's Predator Drones -- And Their Very Strange Past
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This article first appeared at the Not Safe for Work Corporation.
Gray Butte, CA: It's around 1 p.m. when my buddy Dave and I finally spot the General Atomics drone base, way out in the wastelands of the Mojave Desert.
We're on the border of San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties. There's not much around for miles--nothing but sandy soil, rocks, Joshua trees, an abandoned trailer here and there, heaps of trash and tires. There's also a salvage yard full of airplane parts a few miles down the road, as well as a dairy plant and a foul-smelling high density feed lot crammed with miserable dairy cows reeking of shit and piss, baking in the desert sun. Next door to that is a trailer with a sign offering baby goats for sale.
We stop short of the gate, pulling over on the shoulder. Dave is a Victorville native whose dad was in the Air Force. He' s been around drones since they started popping up here in the 1990s. Right after high school, he even scored a brief gig with the infamous Pinkertons, guarding an early prototype of the Predator. But today in our drop-top Mustang rental car--a perfect car for drone hunting--Dave and I look just like a couple'a tourists. I pretend to fumble with the roof controls while we check out the scene.
From afar, the base itself doesn't look like much--just a jumble of low-slung prefab structures and warehouses and random industrial machinery flanked by vivid green alfalfa crop fields, and a solar field just beyond. That base could be anything. But it isn't just anything. We are looking at what used to be an abandoned WWII-era airfield, but today ranks as possibly the largest private drone base in the United States.
General Atomics took the base over in 2001 and converted it into a testing and quality control facility for its drone fleet. This is where the company tests experimental drone technology--like the newfangled stealth bomber jet drone. But mostly the base is where General Atomics techs assemble and test their Predator and Reaper drones before breaking them down again and shipping them to eager customers in the Air Force, Border Patrol, National Guard and the CIA.
The Guardian estimated that U.S. armed forces had about 250 General Atomics drones in 2012. And a good number of them first came through Grey Butte.
As we peer through the outer perimeter fence of the base, I can make out a couple of Reapers parked outside, their motors revving up louder and faster, as they were about to take off. The fence has a couple of smallish signs warning people to stay the fuck away, or else. Beyond the whirring Reapers we see warehouses, hangers, an air control tower and stacks of long rectangular plastic crates that are used to transport the disassembled Predators.
At one point, we spot a Predator hovering very high overhead. It circles a few times and then disappears from view.
I'm suddenly paranoid.
When people talk or think about drones these days, it's usually in very crude, naive, B-sci-fi ways: vague images of big brother robots menacingly hovering over us, observing, recording and tracking our every move…
But I'm not so much spooked by the Predator drones hovering above me, as I am by the spooky brothers who make them: Linden Stanley and James Neal Blue, the mysterious Blue brothers who own and run General Atomics.
You probably don't know about the Blue brothers, and neither did I until a few months ago. There's very little current information available about their lives, and the parts that are known are murky and incomplete.