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Predator UAVs Prove Their Worth in War Against Terrorism

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2003 – The Air Force officer is a transport plane pilot, but these days his aircraft flies "solo," and he doesn't leave the ground.

Capt. Sam J. Vanzanten, 32, is an earthbound controller of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. The eight-year military veteran noted he's been in the Predator program for the past two years.

Vanzanten, his armaments specialist, Air Force Tech. Sgt. George H. Russell, and their Predator were at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., May 16 for the kickoff ceremony at this year's Joint Service Open House.

The C-17 transport pilot said he'd put his UAV expertise to the test overseas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Predator was first used exclusively for reconnaissance missions, Vanzanten observed. He noted that unlike conventionally piloted aircraft, the UAV can remain airborne over a particular area for up to 20 hours.

Vanzanten also said that Hellfire-missile-packing Predators flew combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"People just started opening their eyes to the capability of the aircraft," he explained, noting the Predator can play multifaceted roles over the battlefield.

Even if the Predator isn't armed, "we at least have a camera and a radio to 'talk' to other aircraft in the area," Vanzanten noted, to communicate target locations to pilots of conventional warplanes.

The Predator uses a lightweight, 4-cylinder snowmobile engine, Vanzanten explained, which powers a rear-mounted propeller, making the Predator a "pusher"-type aircraft.

Vanzanten said he watches a television monitor that displays images transmitted from the Predator's nose-mounted camera in remotely piloting the 2,250-pound UAV. The craft, he noted, "flies quite a bit like a glider, or a light aircraft."

Piloting the Predator takes some getting used to, Vanzanten acknowledged - learning how to land the UAV "is a little difficult for everybody, I think."

While other military aircraft braved the rainy weather outside at the Open House, the remote-controlled plane, which was fitted with two wing-mounted, laser-guided Army Hellfire missiles, was ensconced inside Hanger 3.

Weapons specialist Russell noted those Hellfires can penetrate enemy armor and "were originally used on the Apache and the Cobra" Army helicopters.

"It's really an effective missile. I've seen it in action - it's very impressive," Russell declared, noting he's worked with Predators for about a year.

"The whole idea of an unmanned aerial vehicle -- keeping people out of harm's way -- is a phenomenal idea," the 28-year-old noncommissioned officer remarked. The Predator's composite airframe, he added, is easy to work on.

The employment of Predators in the war against global terrorism "offers a lot of different capabilities," Vanzanten explained, pointing out the UAV's "laser- ball" device that's used to guide the Hellfires to target.

And the Predator has been used in joint-combined operations, he continued, noting that during recent overseas deployments U.S. Air Force Predator crews worked with members of the other armed services, as well as British coalition forces.

Maj. Mark Valentine, 33, an F-16 fighter pilot with the 113th Operations Group, 121st Fighter Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard, was also at the May 16 Andrews Open House kickoff. Valentine, who'd recently returned stateside after flying combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, praised the Predator.

The integration between conventionally piloted aircraft and UAVs "was outstanding" during the Iraq war, the major emphasized.

Predator pilots "would identify a target and we would drop (ordnance) on the target - that would happen quite often," Valentine remarked. He said that UAVs "obviously have the endurance to stay in an area a lot longer than we have, because they use less gas."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force unmanned aerial vehicle specialists, Tech. Sgt. George H. Russell, left, and Capt. Sam J. Vanzanten pose in front of an Air Force Predator plane armed with Hellfire missiles May 16 at the 2003 Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Vanzanten remotely pilots the plane, while armament specialist Russell maintains the missile hardware. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore.  
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