BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Staff Sgt. Jeffery Hicks replaces a directional antenna mounting unit on an RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle before it begins a mission supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sergeant Hicks is a crew chief with the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. C.E. Lewis)
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Staff Sgt. Tracy Jones talks with the pilot of an RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle before it begins a mission supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sergeant Jones is a crew chief with the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. C.E. Lewis)
by Staff Sgt. A.C. Eggman
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
3/2/2004 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- The unit came packed and ready to position themselves autonomously, so they could pursue their prey quietly, unseen for hours.
Arriving ready to set up one of the most impressive unmanned aerial aircraft in the U.S. inventory, the Nevada unit was ready for business within days of their arrival here.
“We are self-sufficient,” said Maj. Russell Lee, 46th ERS commander who is deployed from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
The RQ-1 Predator unit is one of Balad’s newest missions. It moved here from Tallil Air Base, Iraq, and within five days flew its first mission.
The only Predator unit in Iraq has a 55-person crew that includes medics, comptrollers, contractors, and communications, weapons, fuels and aircraft-generation specialists. They bring their own shelters, tents and vehicles.
“We’re not under the air (and space) expeditionary force system,” said Major Lee, who was deployed here to specifically oversee the move. “We keep our assets here and rotate crews out every 90 days. It’s a low density, high-demand asset.”
The Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle system, containing four air vehicles, a ground-control station and a primary satellite link communication suite.
The sleek 27-foot-long UAV is comparable in wing span to an F-16 Fighting Falcon at 48 feet. Its electrical optical infrared cameras are the heart of the system, said Major Lee. “It is a multitargeting system.”
The cameras allow the aircraft to capture images even through clouds. These abilities give the Predator an advantage over the U-2 and Global Hawk aircraft which are used for strategic reconnaissance.
“We’re tactical,” he said. “We provide real-time information.”
With their four-cylinder engines, the UAV can fly nearly 20 hours from altitudes up to 25,000 feet, providing up-to-the second information to those who need it the most -- soldiers on the ground. Although the Army initially led the Predator program, Pentagon officials chose the Air Force as the lead service in 1995. The Predator has also been deployed supporting air campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
“We work with Army warfighters,” Major Lee explained, “to help with the capture of enemy targets including the capture of Saddam [Hussein].”
The unit provides intelligence gathering, surveillance and strike capability to engage ground targets, he said.
“We do it every day. It is all we do,” said Major Lee. “We literally fly every day. There is always a Predator airborne around the world.”
The unit’s airmen work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week for 90 days.
“If someone gets sick, we have no replacement,” the major said. “The only time off is when we don’t fly, and I’ve never seen that.”
Each crew -- a pilot and a sensor operator or co-pilot -- flies about three times a day. The pilot is a rated pilot. Currently, the unit has two fighter pilots and a bomber pilot to fly the craft. The sensor operators are imagery analysts in the Air Force on flying status.
The crew receives air tasking orders, briefings, and talks to the tower and aircraft just like other flying units.
Major Lee, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot who has been with the Predator for two years, said it is not an easy system to operate.
“We physically fly the airplane; we just do it sitting on the ground,” Major Lee said. “It’s much more challenging than flying an F-15 because you can’t feel the airplane.”
From a ground-control station, the pilots maneuver the Predator just like any other aircraft. Pilots can comply with headings, altitudes and airspeeds directed by air traffic control, just as if they were in the cockpit.
“The crews must make themselves believe they are flying the aircraft,” he said. “If you become detached and lose focus on what you’re doing, it’s less effective.”
While in the ground station, the two-person crew watches a video monitor that displays images transmitted from the Predator’s nose-mounted camera. All missions are recorded, and information is disseminated to various intelligence units worldwide.
“What we see is unique,” said the major. “We see things most people don’t have a clue that’s going on.”
Although the Predator unit has been flying missions throughout Iraq for quite some time, the major said flying missions from Balad has been challenging.
“This airport is a lot busier than others we’ve worked at,” Major Lee said.