Predator Pilots Engage in Remote Control Combat

Predator drone

hide captionA Predator aircraft at Tallil Air Base in Iraq. Some Predator missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are being flown by pilots sitting at computers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

Deb Smith/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

It's still pitch black outside — "o'dark thirty," as the military would say — when Air Force Capt. Lamont Anderson heads out to work. He walks out of his Las Vegas condo quietly; his wife and newborn daughter are still in bed.

He hops in his car and drives north on a highway that cuts through a wasteland of sagebrush. In the hazy distance are the dry and craggy peaks of the Spring Range. As the sun begins to rise, Anderson turns into Creech Air Force Base.

There, in the Nevada desert, Anderson is training to become a "commuter combat pilot" — one of an increasing number of Air Force pilots who have hopped out of the cockpit but are still flying combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the coming weeks, Anderson will complete his training on the Predator. The 26-foot-long, remote-controlled aircraft, or drone, carries a video camera and twin Hellfire missiles.

The Predator is an ungainly aircraft, with a bulbous head and long, thin wings. The tail flaps are angled down. It looks like a bad high school science project. But it's also becoming more and more popular with commanders on the ground. Just a few years ago, there were only about 35 Predator pilots. By next year, there will be nearly 160.

War by Remote Control

Anderson walks into the Ground Control Station, a cramped, windowless room with low light and the hum of computers. There is a bank of illuminated maps. One day, his commands will be beamed by satellite to hostile lands. He adjusts his chair and taps a keyboard.

In front of him is a live video from the Predator's camera, thousands of feet above the desert floor. Buildings and trucks come into view. He zooms in and out. Grainy images appear of a few airmen loading a truck.

On his left, he grabs a shifter that controls the drone's speed. On his right, a pistol-grip stick adjusts the flaps. The stick also has a trigger for the missiles Anderson could unleash one day high above Iraq or Afghanistan.

Anderson flew C-130 cargo aircraft in Iraq. He delivered troops and supplies and sometimes Med-Evaced the wounded to hospitals. Until today, the toughest thing for him was landing on a short runway. Now, it's the thought of launching those missiles. He has never fired one.

"It does weigh on me," he acknowledges. "It's not something that would prevent me from doing the job I have to do. It's not something I would question in the heat of battle."

And Anderson admits that firing a missile from thousands of miles away also nags at him.

"I'm so far removed," he says. "Here we are at a remote location, far away from the battlefield. I can't really see — I can't physically put my eyes on it. I have a camera."

Anderson says that before he fires any missile, a superior officer near the battlefield will have to give the OK. And the decision will not just be based on a Predator's pictures. Intelligence analysts and sources, soldiers on the ground watching a target — all are supposed to work together to prevent mistakes.

"Whatever shot I may have to take, I feel confident that it's going to be the correct thing to do, considering the circumstances," he says.

The Military's High-Tech Future

In June of last year, President Bush announced that U.S. forces had killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

"Special operation forces, acting on tips and intelligence from Iraqis, confirmed Zarqawi's location, and delivered justice to the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq," he said.

What the president and others didn't talk about was the role of the Predator. Officials here say Predator pilots in Nevada logged 600 hours watching Zarqawi as he moved around Iraq. They got the order to fire at Zarqawi's car, but a computer glitch prevented the Hellfire missile from launching.

So an F-16 roared in and finished the job.

The assets the Predator brings to the fight are making it increasingly popular among commanders. Its camera can offer nearly constant surveillance of insurgents or wounded soldiers alike. The aircraft can also help ground troops by "painting" an enemy location with an infra-red beam – a beam that can only be detected by those wearing special night-vision goggles.

Soldiers nicknamed that beam the "Finger of God."

"More emphasis is going toward this technology," observes Capt. Chad Minor, another Predator pilot, who used to fly F-16 fighters. He stands near the runway as the drone circles above.

"And I think this is where the future military is going," he adds.

The 'Chair Force'

Predators now fly 13 continuous missions, split between Iraq and Afghanistan. By next year, that number will nearly double.

And later this fall, another drone called the Reaper will appear in the skies over Afghanistan; it, too, will be flown by a pilot in Nevada. The Reaper flies higher and faster than the Predator. And it's bigger, able to carry four 500-pound bombs.

So pilots see unmanned aircraft as a growth industry, even though not long ago, some brash fighter pilots like Minor were ridiculed for wanting to fly a remote-controlled aircraft.

"I got snickering and teasing," Minor says. And taunts about being in the "Chair Force."

"'How's the 1-G seat going?" Minor says fellow pilots often asked him. "'Are you getting a backache from sitting down? Have you spilled any coffee on yourself?' Things like that," he adds.

But now, many more pilots are signing up, a decision that eases the worry of their families. With drones, there are no pilots to become casualties.

"If you ask the wives," Minor says, "they get scared for their husbands going up and flying all the time. Every six months or so, a pilot ejects and their heart thumps a little. 'Is that my husband? Is that someone I know? Are they OK?'"

For Anderson, that means his sleeping wife is content he will be on the ground in Nevada, not in the skies over Iraq.

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