Predator: First Watch

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

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"I need some air under my butt," he mutters, walking off. "That's been my problem for a year and a half now." Yet Meeks would replay the ball camera video of his landing, over and over, watching for cues that would help perfect his landings.

For every disgruntled pilot hanging on for two years until he can get back in the air, there are ten sensor operators lovin' life. They operate the cameras and radar, and it's the sensor operator in the role of DEMPC-Data Exploitation, Mission Planning and Communication-who gets the "tasking," or daily list of targets from the operations center, plans the missions, and literally calls the shots.

"At first it was odd giving orders to pilots," says Heather Hunnel, "but they take it really well."

The DEMPC selects the sensors that will be used to "prosecute" a target, explains Senior Airman Jeff Fossum. "We go out [to the ground control station] before the flight to plot waypoints. We choose the sensor depending on the EEI-essential element of information." Intelligence collectors may want to know, for example, if armored vehicles at a storage depot have been operated recently. The DEMPC in that case would specify the use of the infrared camera, which sees the heat generated by the tanks' engines.

How long a target is prosecuted is up to the sensor operators. Trained as image analysts, they make sure the essential element of information has been captured. "Predator is a good background for crew coordination," says Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ricci, a navigator on an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and command system (AWACS) aircraft before taking command of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron. (As a navigator, Ricci also had to have a civilian commercial pilot's license with an instrument rating in order to qualify to fly the Predator.) The sensor operators function in some ways like co-pilots, calling out airspeed, altitude, watching temperatures and warnings. Before landing, the sensor operator turns the ball camera to confirm the gear is down. "It's like any assignment on any multi-place aircraft," says Ricci.

Airman Junior Grade Jaime Penrod, from Lake Placid, Florida, likes her work on the Predator so much that she's thinking of seeking a job with its manufacturer once she's out of the Air Force. "I want to stay connected with this system," she says. She likes the immediacy of it-analyzing images as they're created rather than second hand, days or weeks after the action.

"I've never had anybody [in its target area] notice it's in the sky," she says. "Eventually everything will be unmanned. I bet we see it in our lifetimes."

General Jumper was recently asked in a public forum if the UAV was smarter than piloted aircraft. "No," he responded, "it is braver."

Eleven U.S. UAVs were lost to anti-aircraft fire and accidents during Operation Allied Force-21, including those flown by other NATO members-"and the pilots were last seen heading for the mess hall," as Gibbs blithely puts it. Endurance, flexibility, keen eyesight-good qualities all, but the biggest attraction in a UAV is the "U." No pilot is placed in harm's way, and the American people have made it clear that they like it like that. Casualties are unacceptable, and UAVs permit a whole new world of decision-making.

Tom Reagan, who flew B-52s before he flew Predators, could have been describing either mission when he told me, "We're going to fly at whatever altitude is necessary to avoid threats and get the job done." But only a UAV pilot could say, as he did: "Or it may come to a point where they don't want us to avoid threats, and that's the bonus with a UAV. If there's something that is time critical and they want pictures of something now because it will save lives, then we'll fly right into a threat. And so what if they shoot us down? No one gets hurt and we may find out some invaluable information."

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