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Airmen fly Predator in controlled airspace over Haiti

  • Published
  • By Capt. Nathan D. Broshear
  • 12th Air Force Southern Public Affairs
An RQ-1 Predator took off Jan. 27 from Aeropuerto Rafael Hernandez outside Aguadilla, Puerto Rico marking the first time a Predator has been used to support a humanitarian operation.

The remotely piloted aircraft mission also operated from an active civilian airport, taking turns on the runway with airlines, cargo planes and helicopters.

The "proof-of-concept" mission was the culmination of rapid coordination between officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force, the government of Haiti and various international aviation organizations, said Maj. Jeff Bright, the 432nd Wing detachment commander in Puerto Rico.

Approximately 50 Airmen from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., deployed to Puerto Rico Jan. 18 and were ready to fly Predator sorties within 24 hours. The government of Haiti, the FAA officials and local airfield authorities completed approvals and coordination Jan. 25.

"The second aircraft to take off today was brand new to the Air Force. We haven't even had a chance to paint our unit insignia on the side," said 1st Lt. Frances Dixon, the maintenance officer in charge with the 432nd Maintenance Group.

The team brought six aircraft to Puerto Rico, and their mission will provide 24-hour-a-day coverage over Haiti using two RQ-1s, with the other four aircraft rotating into the orbit.

"Everyone involved in making this happen understood the urgency of getting this capability to the Joint Task Force," Major Bright said. "We're able to provide full-motion video to the government of Haiti, US aid, U.S. military, the United Nations, relief agencies and nongovernmental organizations -- anyone involved in helping the people of Haiti who has a need to access this video will be able to view, in real-time, where their services are needed."

Pilots in Puerto Rico take off and land the aircraft, then aircrews at Creech AFB, Nev., remotely fly the Predator over Haiti via satellite while coordinating movements with relief teams on the ground. Real-time video from the aircraft is fed through a distributed ground control station at Beale AFB, Calif., where technicians assist in analyzing and interpreting data and imagery. The video is simultaneously sent to end users via satellite. The systems will provide more than 20 hours of real-time video across the entire country of Haiti, and can move to any location to support emergency requests.

"The breakthrough of the RQ-1 is that a person on the ground can open their laptop, and watch the video in real-time, talk to the pilot and extend their vision beyond the horizon, over mountains, past roadblocks and into the regions cut off from support," Major Bright said. "Our job is to get the RQ-1s video camera where international aid workers cannot reach to identify people and places most in need."

In order to meet the demand for imagery in Iraq and Afghanistan, RPAs involved in these operations were not affected by the team's deployment. The aircraft deployed to Puerto Rico are used as training systems.

"The students at the RPA school house already train 12 hours per day in order to make this operation happen, we've extended the training day by four hours and will fly our remaining RQ-1s at Creech (AFB) for more sorties per day," the major said.

While RPAs often operate in military controlled ranges and on the battlefield, they only occasionally transit FAA-controlled airspace.

Operating out of an international airport, alongside civilian air traffic, is a historic first, said Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke, the Air Forces Southern vice commander acting as the Air Component Coordination Element with JTF-Haiti.

"Today the Air Force team proved remotely piloted aircraft can operate safely alongside civilian, military and international air traffic during a large-scale air relief campaign," General Burke said. "Together with our international partners and with the help of committed FAA administrators, the Air Force is ensuring every capability in our fleet can contribute to the continued success of JTF-Haiti."