Friday, June 6, 2003 | 11:24 a.m.
While U.S. Special Forces were removing Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital on April 1, an unmanned Predator surveillance plane was flying overhead providing real-time images to commanders.
Although the RQ-1 Predator was in the thick of the operation, its pilot was more than 7,000 miles away, controlling the plane from a trailer in the Western United States.
Nellis Air Force Base officials said they could not disclose the precise location of the trailer. But because the Air Force's two Predator units, the 15th and 11th Reconnaissance Squadrons, are stationed at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field, about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas, it's likely that the Predator pilots for the Lynch mission and most other Predators flown during Operation Iraqi Freedom were maneuvering the planes from either Indian Springs or Nellis.
The Predator missions in Iraq marked the first time that the 27-foot-long aircraft had been remotely flown by Air Force pilots from the United States in overseas combat locations, Nellis officials said.
U.S.-based Predator pilots helped to locate and destroy hundreds of target buildings and weapons during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some of the Predators were modified so that they could carry Hellfire missiles, which were fired at targets.
A March 24 strike against a mobile anti-aircraft weapons system in Al Amarah, Iraq, was the first documented kill by an Air Force-piloted Predator. In other missions, Predators flown by operators in the United States relayed global positioning information or designated targets with lasers, allowing missiles to home in.
The success of these remote missions means that fewer airmen have to be put in harm's way and less equipment has to be transported to war zones, Nellis officials said.
Col. Charlie Lyon, commander of the 57th Operations Group at Nellis during the war, told U.S. News and World Report that the ability to fly the drones from U.S. soil could cut down on the amount of airmen who have to endure long deployments.
"At the end of the workday, you walk back into the rest of life in America," Lyon told the magazine, referring to the pilots who flew the planes from America.
Lyon and Lt. Col. Stewart Kowall, operations officer for the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, were unavailable to comment Thursday on the use of the Predator in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Predators are operated by radio signals, but once they're in the air, control can be shifted to an operator anywhere in the world through satellite links. During the war in Afghanistan, control of Predators was passed between operating stations in Southwest Asia, opening the way for the longer handoff to pilots in the United States during the war in Iraq.
Deploying Predators requires control trailers, about 10 feet long, and satellite dishes as well as the planes themselves. Transporting 30 of the trailers requires 17 C-5 cargo jets.
Now, only the Predators and enough trailers and personnel for takeoffs and landings have to be deployed. Takeoffs and landings have to be controlled on site because of a short delay between the operator and the plane when controlled using a satellite link, Nellis officials said.
A plus "is the flexibility it provides combatant commanders," Kowall told U.S. News and World Report.
Fresh pilots can be rotated through operations centers in the United States to keep Predators flying 24 hours a day, Nellis officials said.
Another new use for the Predators in Iraq was as spotters for downed aircraft. A Predator would be sent up to locate the aircraft and transmit coordinates back to commanders, further expanding the plane's role from reconnaissance to acting as a hunter-finder, Nellis officials said.
Indian Springs also will be the home of an MQ-9 Predator squadron, a new model being developed that will be larger and capable of carrying more weapons. Currently the airfield is home to about 40 Predators, with plans to add 50 off the MQ-9 models, possibly as soon as next year.
Construction of new hangers and lengthening a runway at Indian Springs is scheduled to begin later this year.com