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Eye in the Sky: New Reserve Predator squadron operating its own combat air patrol 24/7, 365
An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle sits in a hangar at at overseas location. The 2nd Special Operations Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., is the first Reserve squadron to assume command of a UAV combat air patrol -- a 24/7 orbit over a critical area of a combat zone. (Airman First Class Jonathan Steffen)
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Eye in the Sky: New Reserve Predatory squadron operating its own combat air patrol 24/7, 365

Posted 7/27/2009   Updated 7/27/2009 Email story   Print story


by Bo Joyner
Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command

7/27/2009 - Citizen Airman/Aug 09 -- It doesn't matter what day of the week it is or the time of day: Air Force Reservists from the 2nd Special Operations Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., are operating an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle as it soars over a war zone half a world away, providing critical real-time information and intelligence to special operations forces and other troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 2nd SOS was officially activated June 6, but five days earlier, the 2nd became the first Reserve squadron to assume command of a UAV combat air patrol - a 24/7 orbit over a critical area of a combat zone.

"This is a great mission for the Air Force Reserve," said Col. Ray Pijma, 2nd SOS commander. "Unmanned aerial systems is a growing field -- probably the fastest-growing in the Air Force -- and we are proud to be a part of it."

As Colonel Pijma accepted the 2nd SOS banner from Maj. Gen. Frank Padilla, 10th Air Force commander, and officially assumed command of the squadron, three members of the new unit were missing. As the rest of the squadron stood in formation in a small theater on Nellis, a pilot, sensor operator and mission coordinator were holed up in a ground control station a few hundred yards away, maneuvering a Predator and pointing its on-board cameras at critical targets on the ground thousands of miles away.

"We operate this CAP 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Colonel Pijma said. "It's a very demanding schedule, but we have some great volunteers here in the 2nd SOS, and they are committed to getting the job done."

"The 2nd SOS went from zero to hero in less than a year," General Padilla said. The squadron started June 1, 2008, as Det. 1 of the 919th Operations Group.

"They reached IOC (initial operational capability) by June 1 of this year and are already flying a combat air patrol. They wrapped their arms around this CAP and took it over as their own," the general said.

Part of the Air Force's Total Force Integration program, which is designed to blend together regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard operations, the 2nd SOS is a classic associate Reserve squadron with a bit of a twist. It's geographically separated from both its parent unit, the 919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field, Fla., and its host associate unit, the regular Air Force 3rd SOS at Cannon AFB, N.M. It's also geographically separated from the aircraft it operates.

"All of the aircraft we operate are owned by the active-duty, and they're all downrange," Colonel Pijma said.

"We have Air Force personnel launching and recovering the vehicles in theater, and we pick them up via satellite control and run the mission once the Predator is up in the air," said Lt. Col. George Wilson, a Predator pilot assigned to the 2nd SOS.

Using satellite data links, pilots like Colonel Wilson use a computer keyboard and joystick to maneuver the Predator while sensor operators, like Senior Master Sgt. David Owens, control the variable-aperture TV camera, the variable-aperture infrared camera (for low-light and nighttime use) and other sensors as the mission requires.

"We also can use a laser to guide the Hellfire missiles," Sergeant Owens said. Predators can be equipped with laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles for situations where immediate action against a target is required.

Colonel Wilson and Sergeant Owens are typical of most members of the 2nd SOS in that they have a wealth of experience in manned aircraft systems. And while operating an unmanned aerial system is very different from flying a C-130, for example, there are some similarities.

"There are a lot of things unique to operating a UAV, but basic aviation knowledge carries over," Colonel Wilson said. "Personally, I don't like the whole computer thing. It takes some getting used to. The aviation concepts are the same, but the dimensions of the mission and the machine are different."

While Colonel Wilson personally prefers the cockpit to a UAV's ground control station, he knows he is providing an invaluable service to America's war fighters.

"I'm here for one reason and that's to support the guys on the ground," he said. "What they are going through in theater is a lot tougher than anything we have to deal with here. I'll do whatever I can to help those guys."

A former loadmaster, Sergeant Owens, who serves as the 2nd SOS superintendent, also sees some similarities in flying manned and unmanned systems.

"One thing that is critical in both situations is communication," he said. "I'm constantly talking with the pilot, and we're communicating with the mission coordinator inside. The mission coordinator is talking with the customer on the ground. The pilot might have to turn the aircraft a certain way to get me a better picture for the troops on the ground, and I might have to change my picture view depending on how we have to fly. Also, you have different airplanes stacked up above you and below you that you have to keep in contact with. There is constant communication among everybody involved."

The past year has certainly been a busy one for the men and women of the 2nd SOS. And it doesn't look like there will be a slowdown anytime soon.

"Our next goal is FOC, full operating capability," Colonel Pijma said. "That will be achieved as we continue to grow and obtain the capability to conduct surge operations to support a second CAP."

The colonel estimates the squadron will reach FOC by the fall of 2010.
As they work toward FOC, the experienced and dedicated volunteers assigned to the 2nd SOS will continue to provide war fighters on the ground with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support.

"Like many other UAV squadrons, the 2nd SOS is comprised of people with a wide range of experience: AC-130 gunships, MC-130 Combat Talons, A-10s, Harriers, F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s and Stealth fighters, bombers, tankers, airlifters, and even helicopters," Colonel Pijma said. "But the real strength of the squadron lies in the civilian backgrounds of our members: commercial pilots, general contractors, attorneys, med techs, software engineers, property managers and small business owners -- volunteers all."

Reservists who might be interested in joining the ground-breaking 2nd SOS can contact Lt. Col. David Johnston or Sergeant Owens at DSN 682-9039.

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