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Predator helps in ground war success

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- The Predator is a high-altitude aerial reconnaissance plane that is used for surveillance serving as eyes in the sky for ground forces.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- The Predator is a high-altitude aerial reconnaissance plane that is used for surveillance serving as eyes in the sky for ground forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

SAN ANTONIO -- Flying over coalition troops racing toward Baghdad, RQ-1 Predators are providing ground commanders up-to-the-second information on what lies ahead.

That is helping make the ground war a success by minimizing coalition troop losses, said Predator pilot Capt. Traz Trzaskoma by telephone.

"We immediately pass on any data we gather to the people on the ground who need it, and we provide it around the clock," said Trzaskoma.

The Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft. It is mainly used for reconnaissance and surveillance missions, and the information gathered cuts battlefield "decision-making from hours to minutes," Trzaskoma said.

"A special forces team was going into an area, and at the last minute (a Predator) saw their landing zone was not the best," he said. "We helped change the mission at the last second. Then we helped them find a better place to land."

The Predators in the fight to free Iraq are deployed from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., supporting the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing at a base close to the fight. With their nearly 50-foot wingspans and four-cylinder engines, they can loiter over a battlefield for hours from altitudes up to 25,000 feet.

The day- and night-time television cameras and radar also allow the aircraft to "see" through smoke, clouds and haze while capturing events as they happen. These abilities give the Predator an advantage over satellites or U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft, Trzaskoma said.

"We've been watching for where the bad guys hide, move or want to hide," Trzaskoma said. "And if we're carrying Hellfire missiles, we can take care of a target ourselves."

Predators have, so far, not faced many threats over Iraq, he said. That could change as coalition forces get closer to the Iraqi capital. Still, the plane's pilots and sensor operators do not ever go in harm's way.

Trzaskoma, who once flew C-141 Starlifter cargo planes, has flown Predators a year and a half. He goes to work in a state-of-the-art ground control station. It is from there, miles away from the battlefield, that he flies the aircraft. The plane's "co-pilot" is the sensor operator, who controls the cameras and radar.

Staff Sgt. Will Barrett has been a sensor operator for five years. Apart from backing up the pilot during a flight and operating the reconnaissance sensors, he also ensures the aircraft's safety. He is the second set of eyes.

Barrett said the flying missions over Iraq have been exciting.

"There are a lot of things that we're doing with this airplane that are playing a big part in this fight we're in," Barrett said. "It's rewarding knowing that what we're doing is having such an impact on the ground forces and contributing to the war."

Before each mission, Predator crews get an intelligence briefing. Staff Sgt. Alexander Britt, an intelligence applications specialist, does that job. He clues crews on threat conditions in the areas over which they will fly. His "info" helps the Predator survive over the battlefield.

Britt said that is an awesome feeling.

"The training back home is all good, no doubt, but it's all (simulated)," he said. "Not here. The intel I provide helps keep the airplanes safe ... that's mind blowing."

The Predators do their job quietly in all weather, and though the composite birds are in the air around the clock, they have had few problems, said Staff Sgt. Randy Townsend, a Predator crew chief. Unlike crew chiefs of other aircraft, Predator crew chiefs do all the work on their charges.

"I catch it, launch it, service it and do all the maintenance on the engine," said Townsend. As for how the aircraft is performing, he said, "We haven't had any problems at all."

Not a bad track record, Trzaskoma said, considering what the aircraft go through.

"We put 'em in the air, one after another, every day of the week, in all kinds of weather ... they fly and keep doing the job," he said. "They're helping win this war."

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