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Wed, Apr 23, 2003

Predator Earning its Keep

'Big Headache' for Enemy

One of the most formidable aircraft in the Operation Iraqi Freedom arsenal does not even carry a pilot. Appearing almost toy-like at a mere 27 feet long, the RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle that remains a huge headache for enemy forces.

Operated remotely by a pilot and sensor operator from a satellite-linked ground control station, the Kevlar-skinned UAV can remain aloft on marathon missions of 20 hours or more. The Predator uses its powerful surveillance cameras to give the theater air component commander continuous real-time surveillance of the battlefield. Besides its highly potent reconnaissance ability, it can carry Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The Predator lives up to its menacing name.

At an air base near the Iraqi border, a particularly important aspect of the overall weapon system that ensures the Predator lives up to its deadly reputation -- the maintainers of the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. The team includes crew chiefs and specialists in avionics, ground equipment, communications, satellite communications, munitions, supply and contracting. Their efforts are especially noteworthy, given the extremely high operational demand on their relatively small Predator fleet.

Reliable Little Bugger

"With the enormous amount of hours we fly, our down time is almost nonexistent," said Senior Master Sgt. Jeffery Duckett, 46th ERS maintenance superintendent. "What that means is that everyone has to perform top-notch maintenance every day to sustain our wartime taskings. Take away any one of these components, and our mission effectiveness degrades significantly."

According to Senior Airman Jason Biselx, a 46th ERS crew chief, the demands of the 24-7 mission translate to a challenging maintenance tempo.

"The main challenge of 24-hour ops with long-endurance missions is the amount of periodic and phased maintenance needed," said Biselx, a native of Kaukauna (WI). "Time-change items come up faster, phases arrive quicker, and major engine overhauls start to really stack up. During a one-week period early in Operation Iraqi Freedom, we had major engine overhauls every night. Another key challenge is fine tuning a small, dual-carbureted engine for high-altitude, long-endurance flight."

The roughly 1,700-pound Predators are designated RQ-1 in purely reconnaissance configuration and MQ-1 when carrying munitions. Duckett, a native of New Orleans, said the single-propeller UAVs are essentially powered by a glorified snowmobile engine -- a four-cylinder Rotax 914 powerplant. [Editor's note: although Bombardier Rotax is indeed a big supplier of engines for snowmobiles, the Rotax 914 is the turbocharged version of the 912, which was designed from its inception to be an aircraft engine. The 914 was never intended for snowmobile use.]

Like aeronautical vampires, unassembled Predators are packed in crates called "coffins," because of their obvious shape. They are pulled from the "morgue" at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field (NV), the unit's home station, and airlifted to the theater of operations.

Operating at this desert base during the plentiful enemy missile threats and alarm-red conditions presented the maintainers some unique challenges in keeping their Predators fully mission capable.

"It's a long run to a bunker when you're launching an aircraft from [a distant aircraft shelter] in MOPP 4," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Strickland, a crew chief. The Beaufort, S.C., native is currently on his second deployment with the Predator unit for operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom.

Another challenge facing the maintainers is an environmental one, thanks to Mother Nature's powerful and frequent sand and dust storms. But that never halts the action inside the maintenance hangar.

"If the weather gets a little ugly, and we can't get airborne, the troops instinctively know to step up the maintenance to take advantage of this down time, while simultaneously preparing to launch again the second the weather breaks, Duckett said.

Learning to adapt to and overcome wartime and harsh weather conditions is something the maintainers say they can pass along to their comrades back at Indian Springs.

"I've learned great lessons in teamwork, improvising and troubleshooting," Biselx said. "There are certain situations and conditions these aircraft are exposed to that you just don't see at home station. Experience is gained in leaps and bounds in deployed locations. It's critical for us to pass along these experiences to maintain a well-prepared maintenance team."

Duckett summarized a common feeling of pride his maintainers share in their ultimate role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Just look at the news. (The Iraqi regime has been defeated,) and rest assured, this unit played a huge role in making that happen," he said.
[Thanks to Tech. Sgt. Dan Neely, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs --ed.]

FMI: www.af.mil/news/factsheets/RQ_1_Predator_Unmanned_Aerial.html

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