Predators Move To Balad
The unit came packed
and ready to position themselves autonomously, so they could pursue
their prey quietly, unseen for hours. Arriving ready to set up one
of the most impressive unmanned aerial aircraft in the U.S.
inventory, the Nevada unit was ready for business within days of
their arrival in Iraq.
The RQ-1 Predator unit is one of Balad's newest missions. It
moved here from Tallil Air Base, Iraq, and within five days flew
its first mission. The only Predator unit in Iraq has a 55-person
crew that includes medics, comptrollers, contractors, and
communications, weapons, fuels and aircraft-generation specialists.
They bring their own shelters, tents and vehicles.
"We are self-sufficient," said Maj. Russell Lee, 46th ERS
commander who is deployed from Nellis Air Force Base (NV). "We're
not under the air (and space) expeditionary force system and keep
our assets here and rotate crews out every 90 days. It's a low
density, high-demand asset."
The Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned
aerial vehicle system, containing four air vehicles, a
ground-control station and a primary satellite link communication
suite. The sleek 27-foot-long UAV is comparable in wingspan to an
F-16 Fighting Falcon at 48 feet. Its electrical optical infrared
cameras are the heart of a multi-targeting system. The cameras
allow the aircraft to capture images even through clouds. These
abilities give the Predator an advantage over the U-2 and Global
Hawk aircraft, which are used for strategic reconnaissance.
"We're tactical," he said. "We provide real-time
four-cylinder engines, the UAV can fly nearly 20 hours from
altitudes up to 25,000 feet, providing up-to-the second information
to those who need it the most -- soldiers on the ground. Although
the Army initially led the Predator program, Pentagon officials
chose the Air Force as the lead service in 1995. The Predator has
also been deployed supporting air campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo and
"We work with Army warfighters," Major Lee explained, "to help
with the capture of enemy targets including the capture of Saddam
[Hussein]."The unit provides intelligence gathering, surveillance
and strike capability to engage ground targets, he said. "We do it
every day. It is all we do," said Major Lee. "We literally fly
every day. There is always a Predator airborne around the
The unit's airmen work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for 90
days. "If someone gets sick, we have no replacement," the major
said. "The only time off is when we don't fly, and I've never seen
Each crew -- a pilot and a sensor operator or co-pilot -- flies
about three times a day. The pilot is a rated pilot. Currently, the
unit has two fighter pilots and a bomber pilot to fly the craft.
The sensor operators are imagery analysts in the Air Force on
flying status. The crew receives air-tasking orders, briefings, and
talks to the tower and aircraft just like other flying units.
Major Lee, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot who has been with the
Predator for two years, said it is not an easy system to
"We physically fly the airplane; we just do it sitting on the
ground," Major Lee said. "It's much more challenging than flying an
F-15 because you can't feel the airplane."
From a ground-control
station, the pilots maneuver the Predator just like any other
aircraft. Pilots can comply with headings, altitudes and airspeeds
directed by air traffic control, just as if they were in the
cockpit. While in the ground station, the two-person crew watches a
video monitor that displays images transmitted from the Predator's
nose-mounted camera. All missions are recorded, and information is
disseminated to various intelligence units worldwide. Although the
Predator unit has been flying missions throughout Iraq for quite
some time, the major said flying missions from Balad has been
"This airport is a lot busier than others we've worked at,"
Major Lee said.