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Predator's combat flight hours off the charts

by Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr.
Air Force Print News

9/13/2005 - SAN ANTONO  -- Airmen who operate and fly the MQ-1B Predator are tired, but you couldn’t tell that by the unprecedented 27,000 hours the Predator has flown this past year supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Some in the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., believe they are the only flying squadron in the Air Force that can even come close to logging that many flying hours. From June 2004 to June 2005 the unit flew more than 27,000 hours, breaking its own monthly record three of the past 12 months. Comparatively, the unit flew nearly 20,000 hours in 2004 and 9,500 in 2003.

“Our guys and gals are tired and don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lt. Col. M.E. Bannon, 15th RS director of operations. “And when they are at forward-deployed locations, they run hard, but do it for short distances.”

But that is not the case at home station.

“There’s no sprinting here,” Colonel Bannon said. “We’re on a marathon, and I’m trying to get us through 26 miles without breaking the squadron, (our remotely piloted aircraft) and the careers of 180 people.”

The aircraft’s biggest challenge is that it is too popular.

Back in 1995, when the Predator made its first appearance during Operation Joint Endeavor in Taszar, Hungary, the Air Force did not foresee just how popular the aircraft would become. During its first appearance, the Predator’s main function was to spy on the enemy. In time, it changed. As it evolved, its mission expanded.

From 1995 to 2000, the Air Force used the aircraft primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In 2001, its mission included counterland missions with a laser beam to point out targets and help fighter pilots to their objectives. Shortly after that, the Air Force equipped the Predator with the ability to carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles capable of piercing armor.

From then on, ground troops cannot seem to get enough of the Predator.

“The Predator prepares warfighters prior to their operations,” Colonel Bannon said. “The combatant commanders know what to expect, and they like up-to-date pictures of the battlefield.”

Remote operations video enhanced receivers allow the Predator to share what it sees by feeding real time, full motion video to other airplanes or ground troops. Everyone sees what it sees.

“The Army and Marines have an insatiable appetite for full-motion video the Predator supplies,” Colonel Bannon said. “Currently, there is a daily request for more than 300 hours of video a day, and we can only provide about 110 hours -- that’s a big shortfall.”

Additional Predator missions include ISR, close-air support, interdiction, damage assessment, combat search and rescue, force protection (locating improvised explosive devices) and remote operations video enhanced receivers operations.

“We’re discovering IEDs before they do damage to our troops,” the colonel said. “It’s not uncommon when we catch the bad guys planting the devices, or tag a location for the disposal ordnance teams to go disarm it. We’re keeping Soldiers and Marines alive.”

With few pilots and so much demand, the only way the 15th can complete its missions is reverting to what they call remote split operations, which involves operating the Predator from a ground-control station at Nellis while crewmembers at deployed locations handle the launches and landings. Once airborne at high enough altitude, control of the aircraft is given to operators in the states. It creates a huge savings in manpower.

“We’d have to have 200 pilots to do what we do in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. By using remote split operations, we can fly more than 3,000 hours per month from Nellis,” Colonel Bannon said.

By flying combat operations from one location in two theaters of war, the 15th RS has proven it can do more with less, and the light at the end of the tunnel will grow bigger as the Air Force obtains more Predators and Predator aircrew, Colonel Bannon said.

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