Hellfire Meets Predator

How the drone was cleared to shoot.

In 2000, Predators began reconnaissance missions for the CIA in Afghanistan. After 9/11, they flew armed, becoming the most controversial weapon since the atom bomb. (Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/USAF)
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Shielded from the test pad by the hill holding the antennas was a concrete bunker full of test gear and engineers, including General Atomics project manager Christopher Dusseault and Major “Spoon” Mattoon, a weapons testing expert and Big Safari’s project manager. Behind the bunker sat the Predator’s ground control station.

At 10:39 a.m., with the Predator’s engine running and its small pusher propeller gently turning, Mattoon decided it was time to launch a missile.

After a split-second pause, a jet of flame as long as the missile spurted from the rear of the Hellfire under the Predator’s right wing. In the flight’s first two and a half seconds, the missile reached Mach 1.3, then slowed to about 400 mph. The Hellfire slammed into the side of the target tank’s turret, right where a nearby camera showed the beam’s sparkle flickering. The aluminum test missile burst into ragged black chunks.

The Predator team spent the rest of the day analyzing video of the Hellfire launch and the missile smashing into the right side of the tank, studying the test from every angle and at actual speed, in slow motion, and in superslow motion. Now the question was whether the Predator could repeat its new trick in flight.

***

On Friday, February 16, 2001, Air Force Captain Curt Hawes would make aviation history, becoming the first person ever to launch a Hellfire missile from a Predator in flight.

Certain the test would be covered by CNN, Hawes told his parents back in Minnesota to watch for him. The first Hellfire launch from a Predator in flight would indeed be historic, and the test was no secret. The Air Force and General Atomics would issue news releases about it, prompting Inside the Air Force and the Las Vegas Review-Journal to write articles about the project. As it turned out, however, the event was of far less interest to CNN than to the CIA and the NSC.

Curt Hawes and most others on the test team were oblivious to the intelligence agencies’ interest in what they were doing. Big Safari’s Hellfire test director Mattoon, however, knew who the armed Predator’s first customer was likely to be. 

***

As the test flight briefing ended, Hawes stood up and faced the crew. “We have come too far and all worked too hard for this to be anything but successful,” he declared. “Let’s go out and kick some ass!”

A few minutes later, a contractor crew using a ground control station at Indian Springs, Nevada, launched 3034 and flew the Predator northeast into the vast test and exercise ranges of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. After the drone was beyond some hills that made C-band line-of-sight control impossible, Hawes and sensor operator Leo Glovka took control of 3034 from a second ground control station parked on the Nellis test range, also using a C-band antenna. Under the crawl-walk-run philosophy of testing, the first Hellfires would be launched with the Predator under line-of-sight control, thus avoiding the risk of losing a link to the drone when flying via satellite. With 3034 carrying an inert Hellfire fitted with sensors to gather and transmit data in flight, Hawes did some dry runs toward the target, an old tank parked in the desert. Glovka would go through the motions of a launch, putting the crosshairs of the Forty-Four ball’s heat-detecting infrared sensor on the tank. To reduce the chances of a miss, a ground-based laser designator team would shine the beam used to guide the Hellfire to its target.

Hawes used the nose camera to line the Predator up on the tank at an altitude of 2,000 feet, then flew the drone toward the “engagement zone.” Once 3034 entered the zone, Hawes depressed and held the black launch button on the throttle with his left thumb, then squeezed the trigger on the front of the joystick with his right forefinger. With a flash of heat and light, the Hellfire rocketed off the drone’s left wing and instantly disappeared.

The unarmed missile traveled three miles downrange and struck the tank about six inches to the right of dead center. Best of all, as instruments aboard the drone showed, the Predator barely shook.

After the test, Hawes was struck by how anticlimactic the experience was. From the earthbound cockpit he was using to fly the Predator, he heard and felt nothing as the Hellfire left the wing and completed its flight in less than 30 seconds. The shot Hawes had anticipated for weeks seemed to be over almost before it began.

Five days later, the team repeated the performance twice. Both Hellfire shots hit the target. 

On September 11, 2001, less than one hour after Al Qaeda hijackers slammed an American Airlines plane into the World Trade Center, Lieutenant General Donald Cook, acting commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, received a telephone call. The White House wanted to know how soon the Air Force could get three Predators over Afghanistan—with missiles under their wings.    

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