JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq (AFNS) --
The 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing received a new MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft and immediately put it into action here Feb. 13.
"As far as getting a new aircraft, it's not very often in the Predator community you are launching a brand-new plane that's never been flown operationally before," said Lt. Col. Debra Lee, 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron commander. "The one we received today only had four hours on it, which includes testing time back in the United States."
After arriving here disassembled and packed in a crate, the remotely-piloted plane used for reconnaissance and strike missions (if needed) was reassembled within two days and up and flying its perfect first trip into blue Iraqi skies on "Friday the Thirteenth."
"Normally on a daily basis, we are launching aircraft with at least hundreds, if not thousands of hours on them," Colonel Lee said "It is great to get a new aircraft."
The commander and pilot went on to point out that her squadron can't accomplish its mission without the maintainers who put it together, and the squadron can't fly missions without the work of other aviators -- both in Iraq and back in the U.S.
"The maintenance team we have here is very professional," Colonel Lee said. "They get our aircraft crated up and then unpacked over here in a very short time and are working around the clock."
At 5 p.m. local, the plane went through a series of checks and the engine started. After another series of power and brake checks, maintainers pulled away the chocks (pieces of heavy wood holding the tires in place) and, a few seconds later, the Predator carefully taxied out to the runway -- which is also used by fighter, cargo and civilian aircraft.
Twenty minutes before sundown, the MQ-1 aircraft launched from the desert base without a hitch, rising high into the light blue sky to help provide overwatch and security for U.S. and coalition forces and Iraqis alike. Back in the control booth, Colonel Lee and sensor operator Senior Airman Charlie Cui were busy talking to controllers and each other while working a multitude of buttons, controls and radios.
"This first day we'll fly it just a couple of hours," said Colonel Lee. "After this first sortie is over, it will be full-up and ready like the rest of our aircraft and it will be able to do everything we need it to with longer missions."
Day in and day out, the Predator mission continues at Balad.
"One of the pilots will go out and preflight the plane, which includes getting all the numbers on the aircraft that we need to launch it, and come into one of our ground-control stations and we'll set it up locally and enter all the significant data we need to control it locally," Colonel Lee said. "Once we get that initial information then we'll get in touch with our launch and maintenance personnel to do a series of checks to make sure the airplane is airworthy and all the systems are good to go before taking off."
Smiling when he walked out to see the new Predator, Maj. Morgan Andrews is one such pilot.
"It is great anytime you get a new airplane, just like getting a brand new car is nice," Major Andrews said. "Being part of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a good deployment for me to be over here and be involved on this side with a new Predator."
The Predator teams make sure all the systems are good to go from minute to minute, and it takes both the sensor operator and crew chiefs to make it work. So far, so good for the new "baby" Predator.
"This was the maiden voyage and all things went well with the launch, even on Friday the Thirteenth, and we don't expect to have any problems with this airplane," said Colonel Lee.
"While we flew this first mission completely local as we ran patrol around the base, on other missions we will hand the aircraft back home through our satellite system and let our other crews back in the States control it," she continued.
Airman Cui said he is proud of his work alongside the pilots.
"What is nice and unique out here is that we work with security forces locally to help with security for both our base and the Iraqis. We set the Predator up to launch its first flight in Iraq.
"It's quite involved in setting up computer systems and, on my side in sensor operations, I'm responsible for the camera," Airman Cui said. "Good communications between the pilot and I are important so you know what both the pilot and the plane are doing. You have to keep the overall mission in mind."
Overall, the entire system is made up of: the ground-control system, a satellite link, personnel and the aircraft itself.
"It is a lifetime opportunity; you are responsible for a lot of people on the ground helping them as their eye in the sky," said Airman Cui. "I have a great chance to help people down below the plane, especially security forces. Overall, it's a pretty cool mission."
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