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Predator proves worth in war against terrorism

FILE PHOTO -- The RQ-1 Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle system. The Predator is a system, not just an aircraft. The fully operational system consists of four air vehicles (with sensors), a ground control station and a Predator primary satellite link communication suite.  (Courtesy photo)

FILE PHOTO -- The RQ-1 Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle system. The Predator is a system, not just an aircraft. The fully operational system consists of four air vehicles (with sensors), a ground control station and a Predator primary satellite link communication suite. (Courtesy photo)

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force officer is a transport plane pilot, but these days his aircraft flies "solo," and he doesn't leave the ground.

Capt. Sam J. Vanzanten, is an earthbound controller of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. He's been in the Predator program for the past two years, the eight-year military veteran said.

Vanzanten, his armaments specialist, Tech. Sgt. George H. Russell and their Predator were at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., May 16 for the kickoff ceremony at this year's Joint Service Open House.

He'd put his UAV expertise to the test overseas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the C-17 transport pilot said.

The Predator was first used exclusively for reconnaissance missions, Vanzanten said. Unlike conventionally piloted aircraft, the UAV can remain airborne over a particular area for up to 20 hours.

Predators equipped with Hellfire missiles flew combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the captain said.

"People just started opening their eyes to the capability of the aircraft," he said, noting the Predator can play multifaceted roles over the battlefield.

Even if the Predator isn't armed, "we at least have a camera and a radio to 'talk' to other aircraft in the area," Vanzanten said, to communicate target locations to pilots of conventional warplanes.

The Predator uses a lightweight, 4-cylinder snowmobile engine, Vanzanten said, which powers a rear-mounted propeller, making the Predator a "pusher"-type aircraft.

He watches a television monitor that displays images transmitted from the Predator's nose-mounted camera in remotely piloting the 2,250-pound UAV, Vanzanten said. The craft, he said, "flies quite a bit like a glider, or a light aircraft."

Piloting the Predator takes some getting used to. Learning how to land the UAV is a little difficult for everybody, I think, Vanzanten said.

While other military aircraft braved the rainy weather outside at the Open House, the remote-controlled plane, which was fitted with two wing-mounted, laser-guided Army Hellfire missiles, was ensconced inside Hanger 3.

The Hellfires can penetrate enemy armor and "were originally used on the Apache and the Cobra" Army helicopters, Russell said.

"It's really an effective missile. I've seen it in action – it's very impressive," Russell said, noting he's worked with Predators for about a year.

"The whole idea of an unmanned aerial vehicle – keeping people out of harm's way -- is a phenomenal idea," the noncommissioned officer said. The Predator's composite airframe, he said, is easy to work on.

The employment of Predators in the war against global terrorism "offers a lot of different capabilities," Vanzanten said, pointing out the UAV's "laser-ball" device that's used to guide the Hellfires to target.

The Predator has been used in joint-combined operations. During recent overseas deployments U.S. Air Force Predator crews worked with members of the other armed services, as well as British coalition forces.

Maj. Mark Valentine, an F-16 fighter pilot with the 113th Operations Group, 121st Fighter Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard, was also at the May 16 Andrews Open House kickoff. Valentine, who'd recently returned stateside after flying combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, praised the Predator.

The integration between conventionally piloted aircraft and UAVs "was outstanding" during the Iraq war, the major said.

“(Predator pilots) would identify a target and we would drop (ordnance) on the target – that would happen quite often," Valentine said. “(UAVs) obviously have the endurance to stay in an area a lot longer than we have, because they use less gas."

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