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Predators ready to aid Missouri flood victims

by Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Print News

5/11/2007 - CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNEWS)  -- MQ-1 Predators are on standby to launch and help with search, rescue and recovery efforts over the areas of Missouri devastated by floods.

Four of the unmanned aerial vehicles and the Airmen who launch and recover them await U.S. Northern Command orders to deploy to a location near the affected area, 42nd Wing commander Col. Chris Chambliss said.

The colonel does not know if the wing will get the call to deploy. But if it does, all the people and equipment needed are ready to go.

"We have in place contingency plans and aircraft and crews ready to assist if we get the call," the colonel said. "We'll stand by 24-7 to lend support."

Once on scene, the team could operate around the clock for 20 days. After a Predator is launched, aircrews from the wing's 11th Reconnaissance Squadron would actually fly the aircraft by remote control from Creech. It is job for which their involvement in the war on terrorism has well prepared them.

"There are a lot ways we would be able to use our airplanes and aircrews -- who are highly trained -- in looking for things," the colonel from Overland Park, Kan., said.

The wing already is busy enough. It stood up May 1at this small desert base 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Its task is to manage all Air Force unmanned aircraft systems. It also trains all Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircrews. And wing Predators fly daily intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. 

"Right now, the Predator is the most sought-after asset in the war on terrorism,"said  Predator maintainer Tech. Sgt. Gil Carrera. "Everybody wants our aircraft, not just because of our strike ability, but because we can watch everything. So we stay busy."

The unit will be even busier once it receives more Reapers, the Predator's larger cousin, later this year. The Air Force will use the Reaper, which can carry a 3,000-pound weapons load, as an attack aircraft.

The wing also is prepared for humanitarian relief work. A 2006 agreement between Northern Command and the Federal Aviation Administration allows Predators to fly over the continental United States to assist during major disasters, the colonel said.

The Predator is the right aircraft for that job, too, said Colonel Chambliss, who flew F-16 Fighting Falcons for 20 years. The aircraft's state-of-the-art sensors can help locate people stranded by the flooding. And the aircraft can stay on the job for long periods of time.

"We'd be able to stay airborne (over the area) 20-plus hours" at a time, he said.

As floodwaters continue to rise, National Weather Service officials expect the situation in Missouri will worsen. Already, the warning of possible flooding has reached St. Louis.

Sergeant Carrera, production superintendent for the 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron's Tiger Aircraft Maintenance Unit, would deploy with the Predator team for the humanitarian assistance mission.

"We have kits set aside from our deployment kits for humanitarian relief efforts," said the sergeant, a Nevada Air National Guardsman from Ontario, Calif.  "We're ready to go now."

Any humanitarian mission would be like those the wing flies now over Iraq and Afghanistan, said Col. Eric Mathewson, commander of the 432nd Operations Group.

"This is not different than what we're doing in the war," the colonel from Paonia, Colo., said. "Everything is virtually the same. We use the same architecture."

Just like it locates insurgents in the war zones, the Predator would use its sophisticated sensors to find people stranded by flood waters.

"We can pass information from the Predator straight to the laptop computers of response teams on the ground," said Colonel Mathewson, a longtime F-15 Eagle pilot. "And we can vector response teams to help people."

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