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Recon squadron keeps remotely piloted aircraft flying

Staff Sgt. Nelson Cherry inspects an MQ-9 Reaper with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained here. It is also remotely operated by pilots in bases located in the U.S. Cherry is an aircraft armament systems specialist with the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

Staff Sgt. Nelson Cherry inspects an MQ-9 Reaper with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained here. It is also remotely operated by pilots in bases located in the U.S. Cherry is an aircraft armament systems specialist with the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

Aircraft armament systems specialists walk past MQ-9 Reapers with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained here. It is also remotely operated by pilots in bases located in the U.S. The Airmen are with the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

Aircraft armament systems specialists walk past MQ-9 Reapers with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained here. It is also remotely operated by pilots in bases located in the U.S. The Airmen are with the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

An MQ-9 Reaper with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron sits on a ramp Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained here. It is remotely piloted by pilots in bases located in the U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

An MQ-9 Reaper with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron sits on a ramp Aug. 18, 2014, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained here. It is remotely piloted by pilots in bases located in the U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez)

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Little more than a decade ago, the skies over Afghanistan looked dramatically different than they do today. Heavy bombing from B-52 Stratofortress', B-1B Lancers and B-2 Spirit bombers could be seen along with F-16 Fighting Falcons, as well as the Navy's F-18 Hornet.  Today a small reconnaisance squadron from Kandahar Airfield accounts for more than eight out of 10 of the RPA combat air patrols and reconnaissance missions over Afghan skies.

The 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron mission is to provide world-class, full spectrum remotely piloted aircraft operations for the joint forces in Afghanistan. According to squadron leaders, the unit's Airmen work 24 hours a day to provide 84 percent of U.S. Central Commands' RPA combat air patrols.

"Here at Kandahar, we support the mission by providing 600 daily hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the Combined Forces Air Component and troops on the ground," said 1st Lt. Michael, an RPA pilot with the 62nd ERS. "If at any point the troops on the ground need eyes in the sky to back them up and keep over watch, we will deliver that."

The squadron is responsible for launching and recovering all of the Air Force's MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper combat sorties in Afghanistan that operate from Kandahar and Jalabad. After crew members from the 62 ERS here launch the aircraft, they work with members in the U.S. to link with the RPA's to take over the flying for several hours.

While the RPA's are primarily used as intelligence-collection assets, they also provide strike capabilities for local joint commanders here.

"We work to prosecute nearby targets as well," said 1st Lt. Michael, an RPA pilot with the squadron. "We protect the friendly convoys that go on local missions."

The unit enables more than 200,000 hours a year of armed ISR full motion video, airborne surveillance and close air support to combatant commanders. They make 55 percent of the worldwide RPA combat air patrols. As the 62 ERS works around-the-clock, crew members ensure they are ready to respond at a moment's notice.

"We spend every second on our shift ensuring the aircraft are ready to go," said 1st Lt. Michael, a 62nd ERS RPA pilot. "We ensure the weapons on the aircraft are safe and that communication links work. This will allow the crews back in the states to accomplish their mission. Once the aircraft lands safely, we ensure the next ones are ready to go."

The Airmen are accountable for operating RPA assets worth more than $800 million. With the responsibility comes a sense of pride to support operations in Afghanistan. As many units in Afghanistan are concluding missions, the 62nd ERS Airmen continue to ensure their mission is accomplished day in and day out.

"I haven't had a day off in over 90 days, but it feels pretty good to part of the mission here," said Tech. Sgt. Steve, a sensor operator with the 62nd ERS. "We support the operations and people that are in contact with the bad guys every day. It is great knowing we are protecting the guys on the ground."

(Editor’s note: Last names have been withheld to protect the security of Air Force operators.)

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