|Desert Hawk helps protect
AIR BASE, Iraq -- Staff Sgt. Joseph Vialpando
(left) and Staff Sgt. Michael Roth prepare
the Desert Hawk aircraft for flight. The
lightweight aircraft is part of the Force
Protection Airborne Surveillance System used
here to look over the horizon for terrorist
activities. Vialpando and Roth are part of
the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Don
10/24/2003 - TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq
(AFPN) -- Not every unmanned aerial vehicle in the sky here
is a Predator.
The 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron is using its "Desert Hawk" UAV
here, providing an extra set of eyes in the sky for looking for potential
terrorists and criminals.
"Desert Hawk allows us to interdict our adversaries before they are able to threaten
(airmen) and resources," said Maj. Glen Christensen, 332nd ESFS commander. "With
this equipment, we can achieve the desired . base defense."
The Desert Hawk UAV system's official name is the Force Protection Airborne
Surveillance System, a small, 7-pound remote control led aircraft used
by security forces airmen. The battery-powered aircraft has a wingspan
of about 4 feet and flies for about an hour using its on-board rechargeable
For all the fancy adjectives and acronyms, the Desert Hawk is a remarkably
simple, yet durable aircraft.
"The manual describes the plane as a state-of-the-art composite material, but
it's actually got a lot more in common with a Styrofoam cup than anything else," said
Staff Sgt. Michael Roth, 332nd ESFS Desert Hawk program manager. "It's pretty
tough, but we can glue it back together if it breaks."
The little plane already has scars from missions here. Brown scuffs along
the underside mark the plane's many landings on the desert plains, and
small gray lines show the places where glue and tape connect the pieces
replaced following missions.
"This plane has gone through a lot, but she's still flying," said Staff Sgt.
Joseph Vialpando, 332nd ESFS's noncommissioned officer in charge of the Desert
Hawk program. "The environment here makes it tough to fly, especially the wind.
Getting the plane airborne, keeping it on track and catching it when it's done
is probably the hardest part of the (Desert Hawk) mission here."
The surveillance system is launched by a bungee cord and controlled with
a portable computer system by operators on the ground. One of the strengths
of the system is in its flexibility. The Desert Hawk aircraft can change
route while airborne by changing the waypoints in the computer's software
program. The plane can also lift interchangeable payloads of color cameras
and thermal imagers for day and night operations, enhancing the vision
of security forces on the ground.
Vialpando is probably one of the Air Force's most experienced Desert Hawk
operators, and the lessons learned elsewhere have helped him in his mission
"I operated the (system) up in Afghanistan during my last deployment, and learned
a lot," he said. "In three months, we found weapons caches, 107 mm antiaircraft
guns and other weapons with the Desert Hawk.
"So far we haven't found anything near that volatile, but we have found people
trying to loot materials and scrap metal outside the wire near our base perimeter," Vialpando
said. "That's a big concern for us because not only could those people present
a threat to us, but also to themselves -- there's a lot of unexploded ordnance
in that area just waiting to go off."
The base's security forces use the system as part of a comprehensive antiterrorism
program. Together with remote sensors and standard foot patrols, the Predator's
little brother helps keep the base and its people safe.
"Most of our UAV flights are supporting the squadron's random antiterrorism program," Roth
said. "We'll vary our flight times and days of the week looking for signs of
possible terrorist activity. We can be ready to fly almost anytime and see any
part of the base and its surroundings quickly."
As the security forces airmen scan the sky of southern Iraq, the Desert
Hawk is also returning images of the people returning to a normal way of
"It's kind of nice to see life outside the gates -- the caravans, vendors, sheep
herders and such," Roth said. "We don't normally have a chance to go outside
the perimeter here, so the (Desert Hawk) is one way we get to go 'off base' and
see the Iraqi people we're helping protect."
For the security forces airmen operating the system, their rotation here
has been both a challenge and an opportunity. Protecting the base while
operating a piece of cutting-edge technology has been an experience the
airmen said they will not soon forget.
"I feel like we're making a difference for our security forces on patrol at Tallil," Roth
said. "Working with the Desert Hawk and supporting the mission here is something
I'll remember for the rest of my career."