10:00 PM PST on Thursday, November 27, 2008
The 163rd Air National Guard at March Air Reserve Base is beginning a new mission.
After two years of being the only National Guard unit to fly unmanned Predator drones in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will begin training the next crop of Predator pilots. The goal is to increase the military's capacity for observing and targeting enemies during wartime.
The Predator training starts in February at the Southern California Logistics Airport, the former George Air Force Base, in Victorville. The 163rd will be the first National Guard unit to teach Air Reserve pilots how to fly drones.
"This schoolhouse thing is really a big deal," said Col. Randy Ball, a pilot and a 36-year National Guard veteran. Ball is overseeing the training program.
"We'd like to think it's going to expand. It would make sense for the school here to get bigger."
Since starting the missions at March, the Guard unit's 35 pilots have remotely flown two predators 24/7, aiming their sights on strategic targets and helping ground soldiers seek out the enemy. Among other things, they can perform surveillance on suspected insurgents and spot roadside bomb activity.
The March missions all have been flown in Iraq. Other Predators are responsible for recent attacks on suspected militants in Pakistan, just across the border from Afghanistan.
The role of unmanned aircraft is expanding in the Middle East wars. The Air Force recently bolstered its arsenal with the Reaper, another drone that flies faster and has more firepower than the Predator.
At the other end of the spectrum, troops in the field have small hand-launched planes they can use to spy on the enemy.
There is even talk of using the unmanned planes domestically to help assess natural disasters, aid in search and rescue operations and assist in fighting wild fires.
During last year's October fires, NASA pilots used an Ikhana, a drone similar to the Predator, to take infrared images of the San Diego fires. The information helped firefighters determine the footprint and direction of the fire.
Capt. Al Bosco is a spokesman for the March National Guard unit. He said the Predators don't just provide air and logistical support without risking a pilot's life. They also save money.
Flying a fighter jet, he said, costs "thousands and thousands of dollars for an hour of flight time."
He said he didn't know what it cost for a 20-hour Predator mission, but beyond the cost of fuel and the pay for the three people necessary to operate it, there is little else to factor in.
According to the Air Force Web site, a single F-22 Raptor costs the Pentagon $142 million. Four Predators cost $30.5 million. That includes the necessary computers and satellite equipment.
There are additional savings in not having to support as many personnel in the field. At the end of a mission, the Predator crew members get in their cars and go home.
Currently, Bosco said, the 163rd is the only Air National Guard flying the Predator. Four other units are preparing to fly missions. The Air Force flies all of the other missions.
Predator pilots based at March sit in front of a bank of computer consoles. With a keyboard, a joystick and throttle, they fly lightweight airplanes equipped with cameras and a pair of hellfire missiles that are half a world away. The planes typically fly 20-hour missions that are broken up into three- to four-hour assignments with various groups of ground-based troops.
The operation of each drone requires a pilot, a sensor operator responsible for the plane's cameras, targeting devices and weapons and a coordinator who monitors such things as air traffic communications and weather.
Five pilots and five sensor operators will provide one-on-one training for recruits at the new center in Victorville. The training sessions last for three months.
For training, the drones will take off from George and fly west into the airspace of Edwards Air Force Base.
Flying from a computer console has none of the tactile sense of handling a real plane. There is as much as a 1½-second delay between a pilot's movement and the response of the plane 9,000 miles away, to which pilots have to adjust.
In addition, said Ball, the light weight of the drone can make it tricky to fly. "It really is a powered glider," he said, adding that it is powered by a modified four-cylinder snowmobile engine.
"It's kind of like flying a Kleenex."
One big difference is that Kleenex aren't usually equipped with bombs.
Predators are armed with two AGM Hellfire missiles. They often serve an important role in combat operations, Ball said.
"If you go back to May, it was pretty violent in the Baghdad area. Every day we flew we were arming missiles. Since then, it's been very quiet."
Commander Kirby Colas, who flew commercially for Delta Airlines, is a Predator pilot and will be one of the instructors for the new flight school. He said that while the planes can be deadly, their primary benefit is in providing a bird's eye view for troops on the ground.
Each Predator has two cameras as well as a laser-guided targeting equipment. The cameras have a visual range of six miles.
"Even in infrared, we can zoom in and you can tell adults from children, males from females, good guy trucks from bad guy trucks," Colas said. "We can send video immediately to ground troops in range."
As long as the troops are within 50 miles of the plane, they can receive the data.
While a missile from the drone can be fired within 1½ minutes after identifying a target, it is usually a much longer process.
"Every event on a target probably represents hundreds of hours of observation, preparation and coordination," Colas said. "We're the most accurate shooter in the military."
Ball said the role of unmanned planes is expanding. The Reaper, for example, is able to carry 15 times more munitions than the Predator and fly three times as fast.
"UAs are going to keep growing," Ball said, referring to unmanned aircraft. "It's a huge growth industry."
The military is working on an unmanned helicopter, he said. "They've actually landed it on an aircraft carrier. It's pretty impressive."
The use of unmanned cargo planes is being explored. And, on the other end, ground troops sometimes employ hand-launched drones, Styrofoam planes equipped with cameras that allow troops to see over hilltops or around corners.
Recent reports have indicated that even though drone pilots are thousands of miles away from their targets, some have experienced reactions to their combat missions similar to post traumatic stress disorder. Ball said that hasn't been a factor for his pilots.
"We have had a couple of fellows that wanted to talk about it after they fired a missile," he said. "But the biggest stress my guys have is 24/7 operations. It's hard on family life."
Some of their fellow airmen also give them a hard time. Flying remotely doesn't carry the same prestige as climbing into a cockpit and taking off into the sky.
"We take all sorts of grief," Ball said. "But then I ask them how many missiles they've shot at bad guys and I usually win."
Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or mmuckenfuss@PE.com