It takes a team to fly a Predator

SOUTHWEST ASIA --

They may not see it, but U.S. service members and their enemies are directly impacted by MQ-1 Predators on the field of battle nearly constantly.

These remotely piloted aircraft have two purposes: collecting intelligence and destroying enemy targets, and they are exceedingly good at accomplishing their mission. Airmen assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron are tasked with keeping these vital assets flying in support of Operation Inherent Resolve from an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. 

These Airmen are responsible for the launch and recovery phases of flight for their Predators. Once in the air, a mission control element, located stateside, takes over and conducts that particular sortie’s assigned task. However, because of satellite delays, the launch and recovery portion is executed overseas. 

“The time delay is not optimal for taking off and recovering aircraft,” said 1st Lt. Matthew, 46th ERS pilot. “Our purpose then is we fly via line of site which allows us to safely fly the aircraft.” 

During routine missions, the deployed Predator team must first make sure the RPA is ready before it can leave the ground. This involves taking a hands-on approach with the aircraft. 

“It’s a big difference from being stateside,” said Senior Airman James, 46th ERS sensor operator. “In the (launch and recovery element), you are more directly involved in being on the flightline, seeing the aircraft prep, maintenance, checking the aircraft forms, making sure everything is set.”

After the preflight, the pilot and sensor operator head to the ground control station, or cockpit, to run the proper checklists and make sure system control panels are working properly inside the GCS.

“As a pilot, I will be referencing all the engine parameters, monitor the data links between the aircraft and the (GCS),” said Matthew. “The sensor operator will be watching the payload, the sensor ball, handling all the checklists including checking gear in order to run the mission.” 

Once all preflight actions are complete the crew here launches the aircraft. While in the air, the MCE stateside takes over and conducts their mission. When the mission is accomplished, the MCE returns the aircraft back to the airspace near where it was launched. The deployed team then takes control again and safely lands the Predator. 

The deployed environment doesn’t come without its challenges. The team often has to deal with a variety weather issues that directly affect flying operations. 

“Biggest one here is fog. You won’t launch if you have fog on the ground,” said James. “It’s a guessing game where you’re really at when you have dense fog conditions.”

“It’s a light aircraft, very susceptible to cross winds, difficult to stabilize and have smooth landings,” added Matthew. 

These challenges of their overseas assignment don’t come without rewards for the deployed Airmen. 

“It feels good, I like being directly involved,” said James. “I like the fact we can help our guys downrange, help them when they need help.”