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UAV 'Cop-Pilots' Getting The Job Done In Iraq

'It's Not Just A Remote Controlled Plane'

While the glamour of piloting a UAV may not match that of flying F-15 Eagles or F-16 Fighting Falcons, a group of enlisted airmen at Ali Base, Iraq are using their wings to perform much the same tasks as those flying the heavier equipment -- providing security, through air superiority.

The half-dozen members of the 407th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron pilot tiny unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles that provide low-cost, low-risk video of any terrain over which they fly. To these force protection airborne surveillance system team “cop-pilots,” flying the MQ-1 Predator’s “Mini Me” counterpart is no hobby.

"This isn’t what people think it is. It isn’t a toy and it’s not just a remote controlled plane," said Senior Airman Shawn Fernandez, a team pilot.

The tiny UAVs transmit real-time data -- day or night -- to a ground-based operator (the pilot) for analysis and risk assessment. The second operator (the copilot) does the pre-launch checks and provides launch assistance.

The UAV operators are called pilots and copilots in part because of shared responsibilities they have with traditional flyers. Just like a manned flight, UAV pilots and copilots have to notify the air control tower about their location, get clearance to launch and check the flying weather forecast before a mission.

The teams can cover a lot of ground with their UAVs -- and using them costs less, and is less risky, than using manned ground patrols.

A portable computer controls the UAVs flight controls and flight paths until the pilot spots trouble and switches to "U-drive" -- taking control from the computer. How long the UAV is in the air depends on the assigned flight path and environmental conditions.

"This is a really great system," team member Senior Airman JoAnn Bonzi said. "It allows us to cover a lot of territory that would be hard, if not impossible, to keep an eye on properly any other way."

The UAV is almost silent as it goes about its business. And like a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying many thousands of feet higher, this mini-UAV’s imagery allows a trained operator to spot any kind of potentially aggressive situations, setups or enemy.

"Every [Airman] here plays a part in base defense -- especially security forces. This is just one part of it. But it’s a great part to be involved in," said Airman 1st Class Eric Vaughn, another team member.

Staff Sgt. Chenoa Abbott is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the FPASS team. She said flying the UAVs is "really a different role for a person from security forces to take on."

"It has really opened my eyes and given me a chance to see what the skies of the Air Force are really like," she added.

(Aero-News salutes Tech. Sgt. Paul Dean, 407th Air Expeditionary Group public affairs)

FMI: www.af.mil

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