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Flying the Predator

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Preditor Aircraft in Iraq

Senior Airman Justin Warnack goes over preflight checks before a mission supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Official USAF Photo
by Senior Airman Shaun Emery

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Each MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle mission flown in the Iraqi sky begins and ends here.

Predator operators deployed here put the aircraft in the air and make sure it lands safely. Sitting side by side in the “cockpit,” enlisted Airmen and officers work as a team providing top cover to Soldiers on the ground.

Pilots and sensor operators with the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here each play a key role in the successful Predator mission. While technology allows pilots to control the aircraft from the U.S., Predator takeoffs and landings must be controlled from Balad.

“We are the launch and recovery element for all Predator missions over Iraq,” said Maj. Matt Martin, 46th ERS commander. “It’s our job to ensure that 100 percent of (U.S. Central Air Forces) Predator taskings are completed.”

While in the air, the remote control of Predator aircraft is transferred to Airmen at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

A unique aspect of the 46th ERS mission is that enlisted Airmen and officers work together every mission. The pilot’s main mission is to fly the plane, while the sensor operator controls the cameras that bring the battlefield into full view to gain intelligence.

Unlike other missions, pilots here only control the plane during landing and takeoff. But because of technological issues, that part of the mission becomes essential.

“Getting those planes in the air and back on the ground ensures our mission success,” Major Martin said. “It’s different sitting at the controls here and not actually in the aircraft, but we adapted quickly to get the mission done.”

Airman 1st Class Felisha Rexford, a sensor operator for the 46th ERS, said her deployment has been an unforgettable experience.

“This is the only job where enlisted (Airmen) get to be copilots with officers,” she said. “I’ve learned so much about flying sitting beside them during missions.”

Sensor operators do much more than watch the feedback from their cameras. Working together with pilots, they do preflight checks, coordinate with the air control tower and provide feedback to pilots. They also keep an open dialogue with operators at Nellis.

“The sensor operators make our job much easier,” Major Martin said. “They know everything that’s going on with the aircraft at all times.”

After the aircraft takes off from here, the fun really starts, said Senior Airman Justin Warnack, a 46th ERS sensor operator.

“We can see everything from up there,” he said.

Airman Warnack has been working with the Predators for three years and has seen the aircraft’s abilities change from reconnaissance to battlefield support.

Predator aircraft are armed with two laser-guided Hellfire missiles. When ground support is needed, sensor operators use laser guidance to pinpoint the precise location to place a munition. When the pilot pulls the trigger, he knows the munitions are on target.

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that we are giving support to the troops on the ground,” Airman Rexford said. “It’s the most satisfying part of our mission here.”

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