Predator: First Watch

Lesson learned: never send a man to do a machine’s job.

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There are other odd sensations to get used to with a UAV. When they're sitting in cockpits, pilots frequently lean into a banking turn, and they have been trained to "check left" when turning to a left heading, for example. One pilot found himself leaning and checking left and looking at the telephone on the wall next to him. He's gotten himself out of the habit but says: "I hope that when I get back to the cockpit, I'll pick that up again."

There's a lot of buzz around the Predator these days, partly because of the star status it enjoyed after Operation Allied Force, and almost every member of the two reconnaissance squadrons formed to operate it-the 11th, formed in 1996, and the 15th, reactivated a year later-talk enthusiastically about being part of something new, something that has "future" written all over it. Still, it's hard to imagine a pilot finishing up flight training and just praying for a spot on this aircraft-or any UAV, for that matter. They are creatures only an image analyst could love.

So the Air Force entices airmen to Predator duty with the promise of a plum assignment once they do time with the "drone." They call the Predator a drone when they want to insult it, usually after they have earned an insult themselves, as in "Ugh! Bad landing! Stupid drone." It is not, strictly speaking, a drone, which is a pilotless aircraft that can sustain level flight over a programmed course. A UAV is smarter; it can fly a programmed course and react to commands transmitted to it from a pilot on the ground. If the communications link with a Predator is lost, it flies a certain course for a period of time until the link can be re-established. When its time is up, it heads toward an uninhabited area to crash.

Currently 38 pilots fly the Predator, and the Air Force will reward them all in some way. When former B-52 pilot Captain Tom Reagan leaves the 15th, for example, he will get his dream job: flying the A-10 tank killer. KC-135 pilot Jobert Calimum is moving up to a KC-10. Captain Craig Babbitt, the C-130 pilot, will get a posting at a base closer to his family.

Some couldn't be cajoled. Pilots tapped for Predator duty can refuse the assignment and leave the Air Force, if their service commitments are shorter then the length of the assignment. Pilots are given seven days to decide.

"They lose a lot of pilots like that," says Tom Reagan. "I volunteered-but after three other pilots had seven-day opted out. We counted up in my training class, and we think 17 or 18 pilots left the Air Force."

Reagan seems genuinely excited by the UAV technology, but he also sees the need for the Air Force itself to adjust to the new system. He thinks the solution is to have a trainer-a supersonic T-38 Talon or a twin-turboprop Beech C-12-for Predator pilots to use at the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, part of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, home of the 11th and 15th. "Our skills deteriorate while we're here," says Reagan. "We will have been out of an aircraft for two, two and a half years. And we don't accumulate flying gates [hours that count toward flight pay]. If we had a trainer to maintain our proficiency, we'd have better continuity and the Air Force wouldn't have the problem."

You can't please all of the pilots all of the time, as Lieutenant Colonel David Gibbs, the 11th's commander, sees it. "Every pilot will get a bad deal assignment eventually," he says. He offers the example of ALO, or air liaison officer, a pilot attached to a ground unit. The ALO doesn't fly; he advises the unit commander on air operations.

"I've flown F-111s and B-52s," says Gibbs, "and after flying a dying weapons system and an ancient one, I like the experience of flying something new." Besides, he points out, Nellis is about 40 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. "Would you rather be an ALO crawling around in the mud with the army, living in a tent, or would you rather come to Vegas?," he says.

Captain Bayne Meeks hints that had he been eligible, he might have taken the seven-day option. Meeks was flying C-130s out of Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, for three and a half years, when the Predator called. "I knew it was time for me to move on at about the three-year point, but I had no idea that was lurking out there," he says, glowering at the UAV perched outside its hangar at Eagle Base. "I'm passionate about flying, and this is not passionate flying.

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