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Air Force squadron takes over Predator operations

Air Force Photo
Staff Sgt. Price Seim, an unmanned aerial vehicle technician with the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., speaks with the ground control cell before the Predator takes off for a mission over Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Dale Warman)

Air Force Photo
The Predator, an unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle, sits outside its hangar at Taszar Air Base, Hungary. (Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Dale Warman)

By Master Sgt. Dale Warman
USAFE Public Affairs

TASZAR AIR BASE, Hungary (AFNS Feature) -- Maj. David Schiffer has been flying reconnaissance missions over Bosnia-Herzegovina since May. He and other people in his unit collect photo imagery of happenings in the war-torn country, providing timely video to decision makers and field commanders enforcing the Dayton Peace Accords.

What sets the people in Schiffer's unit apart is that, unlike other Air Force units flying over the former Yugoslavia, they can take off for the wild blue yonder without leaving their trailer at Taszar Air Base, Hungary.

Schiffer is assigned to the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., the first Air Force unit to fly the Predator, the military's newest unmanned aerial vehicle. The robot plane is the result of three years of joint development by the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and civilian contractors.

Although the Predator program was initially led by the Army, the Pentagon chose the Air Force as the lead service, and the 11th RS took over Predator operations Sept. 3.

Squadron leaders say the Predator brings new capabilities to the battlefield and offers several advantages over manned reconnaissance aircraft. For one Predator can fly into hostile areas without jeopardizing the lives of crew members.

"The Predator is relatively low-cost compared to some other reconnaissance platforms," said Maj. Philip Pearson, the 11th RS operations officer. "It gives us the capability to loiter for long periods of time. When it's fully fielded and fully operational we expect it to loiter for 24 hours or more."

Pearson said the Predator doesn't replace any existing capabilities, so pilots of manned aircraft should not feel threatened or begin looking for new work.

"I wouldn't say that it replaces anything," Pearson said. "It gives commanders another asset to complement the other air, satellite, Navy or ground reconnaissance and surveillance systems."

Predators based at Taszar carry three types of sensors: electro-optical, which sends video pictures; infrared, to pick up heat concentrations; and synthetic aperture radar, to make out figures through clouds. The payload operator -- an enlisted photo imagery specialist -- sits near the pilot and can switch between the three sensors during the same mission.

Images captured by the sensors go from the aircraft to the ground control cell at Taszar, and then by satellite to video units throughout the theater. Commanders watching the video screen see pictures less than two seconds old -- what the military calls near-real time. What exactly do they see? One officer called the Predator pictures high quality and said users can sit back as if they were "watching the Super Bowl" on their screens. The ability to pull still photo images from the video is a popular feature.

"We monitor road intersections, cities, concentrations of people -- anything the field commander wants," said Lt. Col. Steve Hampton, 11th RS commander. "We can even send images back of a particular building, if that's what they need."

The Predator lets military commanders watch troop concentrations and movements of weapons, which are governed by the peace accord agreed to by all of Bosnia's warring factions. It's not up to the Predator unit to determine what's illegal, but the unit provides a valuable tool to commanders.

"What the Predator allows the commander to do is watch real-time what's going on out in the field, particularly in a theater where we're doing a lot of inspections, where we're concerned with force protection, watching our troops to make sure they're not threatened by a hostile force," said Pearson. "We can stare on targets for a long time and do some surveillance."

Schiffer added: "It's very interesting to go up there and look at somebody for eight or nine hours in one spot and see whole situations evolving from beginning to end."

The officers said the Predator observations confirm for commanders a lot of what they're being told on the radio, and lets them make decisions by seeing.

"We've had a lot of positive comments back from the ground commanders," Pearson said. "It lets them put eyes into areas that may be hard to reach and lets them see what's going on in real-time."

NATO planners and peace implementation force commanders at several levels use images from the Predator, including Task Force Eagle in Bosnia, the Combined Air Operations Center at Vicenza, Italy, the Allied Rapid Reaction Force, and the European Command Joint Analysis Center at RAF Molesworth, England.

Airmen assigned to the Predator unit come from several specialties, including aircraft maintenance, air crew and photo imagery. All pilots are rated officers. The squadron commander said he has people assigned who previously served as pilots, navigators, weapons systems officers and electronic warfare officers on various Air Force aircraft. People joining the program attend training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

Pilots say flying the Predator is similar to flying other aircraft, except they don't have the feel in the seat of their pants, and that it takes getting used to the 1.5-second delay from what they do on the controls to what they see on the screen in front of them.

"In the Predator you look out of a nose camera, which is nothing more than a TV screen, a lot like playing your video game," said Schiffer, who piloted B-52 bombers for 12 years before joining the Predator program in November 1995.

"The B-52 is heavy," he said. "You go from flying an aircraft with a half million pounds maximum gross weight to an airplane that weighs 2,000 pounds. You go from burning fuel of about 24,000 pounds an hour down to about 12 pounds an hour -- it's a bit of a difference."

For Schiffer and the others in the program, flying the Predator is no game. They operate in international airspace and use the same corridors as manned aircraft, talking with air traffic controllers along the way just as if they were aboard the Predator. They also know people on the ground are relying on them so they can make sound life-and-death decisions.

People in the unit agreed, the program is a good opportunity to be part of what may be the future -- unmanned flight -- and they're the subject of a lot of curiosity.

"Most people have a lot of questions," said Staff Sgt. Price Seim, an avionics sensor specialist on fighters at Nellis before moving to the Predator. "We're out here at the end of the runway, so everybody stops to see it."

Schiffer said the Predator produces a lot of cross-talk among pilots.

"Other pilots are very curious," he said. "It's a completely different way of flying. If I call back to my buds I flew with at Barksdale, they always ask what's it like, what do we do, how long the missions are -- the typical questions you'd hear from professionals in the field."

The Predator is a medium-altitude endurance UAV built by General Atomics for surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition. Initial Air Force plans are for 10 Predators to be delivered to the 11th RS, each costing $3 million. Although the 11th RS is based at Nellis, plans are for flight operations from Indian Springs Airfield, Nev.

"The future for Predator is almost unlimited," Pearson said. "It's proved itself out here in Joint Endeavor, and it looks positive." (Courtesy USAFE News Service)

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