SPRINGFIELD -- The MQ-1 Predator drone -- one of the Air Force's most deadly unmanned aerial vehicles -- has been deployed worldwide to assist U.S. and allied forces in the ongoing war against terrorism.
For the past three years, the 178th Operations Group of the Ohio National Guard in Springfield has been at the controls of many of the Predator's missions overseas. From their home base, Guard members have remotely operated two Combat Air Patrols, flying a total of two Predators 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Crews are able to hook up with an aircraft in any part of the world where they are needed through a satellite connection and by working with a small staff on the ground in area where the drones operate. Take-offs and landings are controlled by crews on the ground, but guard members in Springfield link up and take control using a satellite connection once the Predators reach around 5,000 feet, depending on weather and various other conditions.
"That CAP gives large flexibility to the Air Force and our leaders to move us rapidly," said Col. Bryan Davis, commander of the Springfield Air National Guard base.
Crews consist of a pilot, a sensor operator and an intelligence coordinator. The base operates three shifts a day, allowing a single Predator to remain in the air for as much as 22 to 24 hours a day. While the aircraft is armed, Davis estimated as much as 95 to 98 percent of its mission is to collect intelligence and perform reconnaissance.
That could include watching over a U.S. military base to watch over the perimeter, tracking the vehicle of a suspected terrorist, or watching over a U.S. convoy to ensure its safety, Davis said. In the United States, the Predator can also be used in natural disaster situations, although the local Guard does not currently fly those missions in Ohio.
"We have never controlled a Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the local community airspace," Davis said.
Predators have been used in the U.S. in other states, and it's possible they could eventually be used in Ohio. In California at the governor's request, the National Guard used a Predator to provide aerial footage of the California Rim Fires, alerting incident commanders of how the fire was spreading in real time and allowing firefighters to monitor the blaze and respond to trouble spots more quickly.
The Predator can provide rescue crews with valuable information in the case of a natural disaster, he said.
"Our capability to find people injured or find people lost or to find things on the ground to help an incident commander is huge," Davis said.
The military has strict rules for how the RPAs must be operated in the United States, Davis said. If the military wanted to perform reconnaissance on a civilian vehicle, for example, the rules would require the owner to sign a waiver allowing the military to do so first, he said.
"You are never going to see a military asset sitting over your house," Davis said. "That's not going to happen."
One common misperception is the drones are autonomous, Davis said. Although the name drone implies it operates on its own, the aircraft are nearly always controlled by trained crews on the ground. The only exception might be if the aircraft malfunctions. In those cases, the Predator is pre-programmed to follow a specific flight path to return to a designated area so it can be recovered and repaired.
In the past, traditional pilots were typically re-trained so they could also operate the Predator, Davis said. But the demand for the Predator has increased significantly over the years, and more often, pilots are being trained specifically to operate the drones. It can take between two and three years to train an operator.
A recent report from the U. S. Government Accountability Office showed there were about 400 U.S. pilots flying drones in 2008, but that figure had spiked to 1,350 by 2013. The spike in demand has led to concerns about more stress, longer hours and other difficult working conditions for pilots, particularly in the Air Force. The nature of a drone mission is also different for pilots, who often return home to their families at the end of the day after a potentially stressful mission.
While Guard members face some of those issues, the 178th Wing has to take precautions to ensure crews do not suffer from burnout or other problems, Davis said. Otherwise, it would be difficult to keep them on the job once they are recruited and trained. In addition, crews in Springfield are in a better situation than some other units, because of the proximity to health professionals and other resources at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Most of the local guard unit is comprised of area residents, and recruiting new guard members to the career field has also changed, Davis said. The Springfield base has a long history of operating fighter jets, and the F-16s themselves were often a recruiting tool as they soared above the base, Davis said. But that mission is now gone. In contrast, pilots in the Predator program are not even allow to reveal their names to the public because of the secrecy of the missions.
And many members of the public often have misperceptions about the Predators and its mission. To combat that, Davis said he tries to emphasize the career skills and technical training recruits can learn by joining the Guard.
"We're always trying to get the message out that there's a lot of opportunity there in the Guard to get very technical skill sets," Davis said.
At the same time, local Guard members are proud of the work they do every day to save lives and support troops on the ground, Davis said.
He recalled instances in which Predator crews have been able to spot improvised explosive devices on the road, and alerted U.S. convoys to reroute to a safer path. In other cases, the Predator provides constant watch over a perimeter, providing additional security for soldiers in the field.
"That extra eye in the sky provides a lot of comfort to the soldiers on the ground," Davis said.