Predators on patrol in Afghanistan

USAF photo: Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse Maj. Rick Wageman operates the virtual cockpit of an MQ-1 Predator on Oct. 25 at a base in southern Afghanistan.

By Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez: 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — As the demand for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets in Afghanistan increases, a small group of airmen at a base in the southern region of the country are working to meet the demand.

Members of the 62nd Electronic Reconnaissance Squadron maintain and operate the MQ-1 Predator, an unmanned aircraft system whose primary mission is interdiction and conducting armed reconnaissance against critical and perishable targets.

“Our primary job here is to launch and recover Predators for the mission crew,” said Maj. Rick Wageman, a pilot deployed from Cannon Air Force Base. “Anything else we do on top of that is gravy because we have the ability to support local stuff.”

Local stuff refers to any troops-in-contact calls the aircrew might receive where they can operate a line-of-sight mission.

“Troops on the ground will report a contact and we will get our eyes there as quick as possible,” Maj. Wageman said. The Predator is equipped with a day variable-aperture TV camera and a variable-aperture infrared camera that provides the pilot with full-motion video allowing them to track and target insurgents.

Maj. Wageman is a prior F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot with more than 1,000 flight hours, 250 of which are combat hours. After switching over to the Predator less than a year ago, he already has more than 300 Predator hours, 250 of which are combat support hours.

As a pilot, Maj. Wageman works closely with and relies on a sensor operator for each mission. Airman 1st Class Julian King, deployed from Nellis AFB, Nev., fills that role here.

“I’m backing up the pilot and serving as his second set of eyes and ears,” Airman King said.

“He controls the sensor,” Maj. Wageman said. “Once we take off and are on a mission, 99 percent is based on the sensor. If there is a moving target, he is responsible for tracking that target. It is totally dependent on teamwork to build as much situational awareness as you can.”

The two operators started Predator training on the same day 11 months ago where they learned how to operate the UAS. Before deploying, they attended a three-week course designed specifically for training on launching and recovering the aircraft.

While deployed, the pilot and sensor operator are responsible for performing preflight checks and launching the aircraft. After launching, the crew will usually hand over the controls to a mission crew operating out of Creech AFB, Nev. This remotely located mission crew operates the Predator for the majority of the mission, and then passes control back to deployed aircrews like Maj. Wageman and Airman King who will land and recover the aircraft.

“I’ve learned so much more doing launch and recovery about the aircraft than I would have done back home,” Airman King said. “Out here we are 100 percent more in touch with the airplane than we are at home station. I’m going to go back home and be more excited about the mission now that I know more about it.”

“I think everyone should have to do this within their first year operating the Predator,” Maj. Wageman said. “We go out and do our walk around and work with the crew chief; everything you would normally do with an aircraft.”

The deployed crew chiefs play a vital role in ensuring the operability of the Predator. The UAS must be maintained just like any other aircraft. In addition to helping launch and recover the aircraft, crew chiefs are responsible for all the general aircraft maintenance. They perform regularly scheduled maintenance every 60 hours of flight, and periodically change out the engine. The crew chiefs are also responsible for repairing any other problem that may arise.

“Everything that we have is pretty scheduled, except for some days when the planes come back for things,” said Airman 1st Class Justin Cole, deployed from Creech AFB. “And that’s the only tough part. Once they come back, then we have to troubleshoot them for problems and figure it out from there. We’re pretty much our own go-to guys. We don’t have to look to the back shop for too many things except sheet metal. We’re it.”

Despite any mechanical problems there may be, many of the crew chiefs agreed the Predator is easier to maintain than other aircraft.

“We have a plethora of guys from all other airframes and they all say this is way slower pace and a lot easier to work on,” said Airman Cole, who went to school for A-10 Thunderbolt II maintenance. “It’s tiny and there are no hydraulic systems to it, it is all electronic.”

Just because the maintenance is easier, doesn’t mean there is any less stress to the job.

“They’re flying more so they expect us to get the maintenance done,” said Airman Cole, a native of Orange Park, Fla. “They tell us not to feel pressured, but we know there is a deadline there, so we have to uphold it just for our pride’s sake. So that’s kind of demanding.

“It’s different. Everybody wants the Predator,” he said. “It’s the new thing, and it’s not going anywhere.”