SMALL AIRCRAFT, BIG MISSION

By LtCol Bob Thompson, USAF, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Balad AFB, Iraq (AFPN) 6/7/2006 — Patrolling the sky over Iraq for more than 2,250 hours in May, the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here leads the largest unmanned aerial vehicle operation in the world with one of the Air Force’s smallest aircraft — the unmanned MQ-1 Predator.

Providing “real-time eyes-in-the-sky,” this squadron of about 20 aircraft is often the critical link between ground commanders and what is around the next corner in combat. “We’re the largest game in town and an integral part of just about every large joint operation in Iraq,” said Capt. Fred Atwater, 46th ERS commander.

Predators often work closely with ground forces. Flying more than 130 missions in May, they patrolled convoy routes, supported ground force raids and flew as aerial sentries to deter attacks on infrastructure and people. “We’re the most requested asset in theater,” Atwater said. “Our aircraft fly for 20 to 22 hours straight without refueling. We can provide a commander with full-motion video of the battlefield and an armed presence that stays overhead, on station, throughout his mission.”

Able to carry two Hellfire missiles, the Predators not only hunt insurgents throughout the country, they also defend the squadron’s home at Balad AB. By working closely with Army quick reaction forces, Captain Atwater’s unit patrols the base’s perimeter.

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