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Eye in the sky protects ground forces

by Senior Airman Colleen Wronek
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

5/6/2005 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Soaring through the air looking for prey, the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle is an aircraft ground forces do not want to be without.

With its large infrared eye, it surveys the land and relays intelligence to servicemembers in the field.

“The Predator is the greatest reconnaissance tool the Air Force has to offer,” said Senior Airman Kitsana Dounglomchan of the 46th Aircraft Maintenance Unit here.

The Predator crew here is deployed from Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nev., and their mission is to launch, retrieve and maintain the aircraft.

“A typical flight involves taking off and flying to a target location where we’ll observe enemy activity. Flights can sometimes last for 20 hours,” said Capt. Ryan Simpson, a Predator pilot with the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. “Flying it is similar to flying a real airplane except you don’t hear the engine or feel the plane turn, and you can’t see much outside.”

Predator pilots here launch and land the aircraft from inside a ground control station. The pilots fly the aircraft to a secure airborne holding location where they transfer control to pilots at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., through a satellite link. Once the mission is complete, Nellis pilots give the signal back to pilots here who then land the aircraft.

“All Predator pilots were previously flying other military aircraft,” Captain Simpson said. “Flying the Predator is different because it goes slower than jets, but all the principles of flight and fighting tactics are the same.”

Captain Simpson said landing the Predator is challenging.

“The aircraft is affected by wind more than any other aircraft and visibility is limited to what you see in front of the camera,” he said.

The aircraft is equipped with cameras capable of capturing images in the day and at night, and through smoke, clouds or haze. The cameras produce full-motion video and still-frame radar images.

“Among other things, I maintain the multispectral targeting system ball, which is like the eye of the Predator,” said Senior Airman Christopher Sipes of the 46th AMU. “The eye provides infrared surveillance video, which helps ground forces see what’s going on.”

The aircraft can launch two laser-guided Hellfire anti-tank missiles within a moment’s notice, he said. The missiles have been used successfully against Iraqi insurgents launching mortar attacks from outside the base here.

The Predator’s communications equipment helps keep the mission going by providing communications between the ground station and the aircraft when it is beyond the line of sight.

“The ground control station is like a huge remote control,” Airman Dounglomchan said. “The equipment I maintain is the essential link between the pilots and the plane itself.”

The Predator provides ground troops targeting information they previously went without.

“It’s the eyes in the sky for all servicemembers,” said Senior Airman Chris Curran, a crew chief with the 46th AMU.

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