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Predator team prowls Iraq
Here comes the Predator
TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq -- Airmen from the 64th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron position a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. The Predator is a complete system, not just an individual airframe. A fully operational system consists of four Predator units, a ground-control station, a satellite link and about 55 people to support continuous 24-hour operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Deb Smith)
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6/30/2003 - TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN)  -- It hunts alone, flying quietly for more than 20 hours at a time, carefully scouring the Earth for the most minute evidence of ground activity and discretely relaying intelligence information to analysts half a world away.

But on a moment's notice, the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle can transform itself from a forward aerial-observer to an opportunist attack-craft capable of delivering an armor-busting missile with pin-point accuracy.

The Predator is a complete system, not just an airframe by itself. A fully operational system consists of four aircraft with sensors, a ground-control station, a satellite link and about 55 people to support continuous 24-hour operations. To the airmen here who fly them, the system is more than just an expensive video game.

Inside the Predator's brain, there is room for a crew of two. The ground-control station, a box-like container which resembles the end section of a tractor-trailer, controls almost every move of the 27-foot craft.

"(The stations) are designed to do nothing more than get the aircraft airborne and get it down," said Lt. Col. Eric Jessen, 64th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander and Predator pilot.

"It's like a laptop flight simulator," said Capt. Gary Town, 64th ERS pilot. "I've actually enjoyed flying it. It is challenging."

Part of the challenge is flying the Predator at 80 mph through tiny cameras mounted on the airframe, Town said.

"You're looking through Dixie straws," said Jessen, an 18-year Air Force veteran and former A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot. "You lose all depth perception . and you have to keep remembering what camera you're looking through."

The Predator's cameras act like multiple sets of eyes that assist the crew in flying the aircraft and conducting ground reconnaissance. They are also the most expensive part of the aircraft, Town said.

"The aircraft itself is worth about ($2 million to $3 million) but with the 'ball' the price goes up to about $7 million," Town said about the spherical-shaped housing on the Predator's underside. It contains all but one of its surveillance cameras.

The day camera is located in the aircraft's nose and is used for flight control, while others are used for surveillance in low-light environments such as smoke, clouds or haze.

The sensor operator, who is usually an enlisted imagery-analysis specialist, operates the cameras for reconnaissance purposes. Predator pilots come from many walks of life.

"Everybody's got a different past," Jessen said. "We even have some navigators . they can fly Predators as long as they have a civilian pilot's license."

As Predators become more integrated with the Hellfire missile system, Air Force officials are looking at using more fighter pilots to fly them, said Jessen.

Town, a former AC-130 gunship pilot, said he thrives on the Predator mission and has no regrets about its high demand.

"We'll see (air expeditionary forces) cycle in and out, and we'll be here," he said. "We're needed everywhere. We're kind of like tanker units -- we go, and we stay."

"(It) feels good to support the guys on the ground," Town said. "It's been very rewarding for me."