BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Maj. Michael Bruzzini inspects an RQ/MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle here. He is the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Leah R. Burton)
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Airman 1st Class Tyler Farley controls the virtually undetectable RQ/MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle's cameras from his seat on the ground. Airman Farley is a sensor operator. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Leah R. Burton)
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- The RQ/MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle is a lightweight, low horsepower aircraft capable of flying more than 20 hours of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, helping protect ground troops in Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Leah R. Burton)
by Army Spc. Leah R. Burton
28th Public Affairs Detachment
2/10/2005 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- The loud roars of F-16 Fighting Falcons here are familiar reminders of close-air support, but unmanned Predators silently swarm the sky protecting troops by different means.
The RQ/MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle is a lightweight, low-horsepower aircraft capable of taking daylight and infrared video imagery as it traverses the atmosphere above virtually undetectable, officials said. A pilot and a sensor operator control the Predator from a ground terminal.
Airmen of the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here fly the Predator, aiding Soldiers in combat situations.
Although the Predator's main mission is collecting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information, it can also fire weapons.
"Obviously if we catch the bad guys that are shooting mortars at our base, the mortars stop," said Maj. Michael Bruzzini, squadron commander. "We saw mortars launched and took out the perpetrators with Hellfire missiles."
All of this is done from a terminal on the ground, where a pilot and a sensor operator control the movements and actions of the UAV.
The Predator was used during a recent raid where Soldiers detained several high-value targets, increasing the unit's combat effectiveness by 50 percent, Major Bruzzini said.
"As the raid was going down, a 'God's-eye' view was being passed down to the Soldiers,” Major Bruzzini said. “The Predator had eyes on the whole time and was able to inform the Soldiers of what was going on around them."
This type of mission is what the Predator was designed for.
"Our biggest mission is to support [Soldiers]," Major Bruzzini said.
While the Predator supports the mission, Major Bruzzini said he understands his sister service's bottom line.
"You win wars by securing ground, and troops on the ground are the only way you secure ground," the former F-16 pilot said.
There are challenges that are unique to the Predator.
"You feel like you're in it. You do lose some situational awareness, because you can't look around your aircraft," Major Bruzzini said. "You take for granted a lot of things that are very easy in other aircraft, like taxiing."
Another challenge is that the pilot is not actually in the aircraft; however, flying the Predator is very similar to flying other aircraft, he said.
The sensor operators control the movement of the cameras on the Predator. They train for nine months, six months at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, and three with a formal training unit.
"In the first couple of weeks of the (training), you want to quit [because of difficulties controlling the equipment,]" said Airman 1st Class Tyler Farley, a squadron sensor operator.
Airman Farley said he has since mastered the operation of the equipment and now acts on instinct. "You just trust what the pilots do and play your 'video game' for five hours or so," he said.
Although it can be scary controlling a $4.2 million aircraft by remote control, Major Bruzzini said they are more apt to take risks in this aircraft because it is unmanned.
"What's going through my head (when I'm flying the Predator) is we have troops getting shot at who are Americans, and I want to help save American lives. ... It's very rewarding to know that what you do saves lives. ... There are combat missions with people on the ground, and I'm saving their lives on a daily basis," Major Bruzzini said. (Courtesy of American Forces Press Service)