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    Enlisted flyers watch over Airmen ground forces

    Enlisted flyers watch over Airmen ground forces

    Photo By Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Doscher | Senior Airman David Brock, 887th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron Scan Eagle...... read more read more

    The painted wooden sign hanging over the tent's entrance identifies the tiny spit of sand as Burge Field, an esoteric but fitting name bestowed on the field by the 887th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron members who work there and understood only by those who are "in on the joke."

    Vernon Burge was the first enlisted aviator.

    The small handful of Airmen who make up the 887th's small unmanned air systems unit are the first military members to field the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial system and use it in support of tactical operations. Weighing in at about 40 pounds with a 10-foot wingspan and requiring no runway, the Scan Eagle isn't as large or as well-known as the larger MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper. Nevertheless, the UAS and the Airmen flying it have given 887th ESFS members outside the wire a huge advantage in their mission.

    "Our mission here is unique," said 1st Lt. Maxwell Kimmel, 887th ESFS Small Unmanned Air Systems officer in charge. "We provide tactical-level intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to the squadron. That means supporting patrols, convoys moving in and out of our area of operations, supporting outside-the-wire and inside-the-wire missions and perimeter searches, so it's a pretty broad mission."

    The Small Unmanned Air Systems Flight flies two types of UAS, each with their own strengths, Kimmel said.

    "One of the things that differentiates us from a normal UAS operation is that we're using two systems at once," he said. "We're using Scan Eagle and Raven B. Each system is unique with unique capabilities."

    Scan Eagle has the longer range and loiter time while the Raven B is smaller and more mobile, Kimmel explained. But it's not the type of aircraft that makes his unit special, it's the operators.

    "It's all enlisted," he said. "What we've got out here is enlisted flying unmanned air systems in manned airspace, and the unique part about that is that these guys were pulled off of fire teams. They used to be squad leaders. They used to be truck drivers. Now we've got them flying UAS."

    "Pulled" is a gentle euphemism. In order to become part of the Unmanned Air Systems Flight, security forces members had to apply, submit a resume and interview for the job.

    "To become an operator, you have to be selected," said Tech. Sgt. David Baxter, 887th ESFS Small Unmanned Air Systems Flight NCOIC. "We took resumes and did interviews before hiring the best people for the job. We sent them to Washington state for a two-month course from the manufacturer, and the maintainers went through a one-month course."

    Staff Sgt. Christopher Banks of Gilford, N.H., has been a Scan Eagle operator for six months. Deployed from the 822nd Security Forces Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., he said he signed up for security forces to do air base defense, but never imagined that would lead him to operating a UAS.

    "When I heard about Scan Eagle, I was really excited," he said. "I'd been flying airplanes and sailplanes since I was about 10 years old, so the prior experience was a big factor in getting this job."

    "I was looking for a whole range of stuff," Kimmel explained. "I was looking for someone who really wanted to be part of the program. If you have an interest, you're more inclined to succeed. It was on a volunteer basis. I was looking for mechanical skills, previous flight skills and any type of computer skills. If you were a squared-away troop, I would have taken you."

    The 887th wasn't just looking for operators, however. With no contractor support, the flight was required to be self-sufficient, and without someone to maintain the UAS, the mission would eventually grind to a halt.

    "We fix any problems with the planes that may happen on landing, retrieval or launching," said Senior Airman David Brock, 887th ESFS Scan Eagle maintainer. "If anything goes wrong, something breaks, we're able to fix it."

    Unlike some of the other flight members, Brock wasn't drawn to the flying, but to the technology.

    "I like computers," he said. "So when the job opened up, I saw it as an opportunity to get more into a technology-oriented part of our career field while still helping out security forces. It feels good to know I'm doing something that no one else in the Air Force is doing. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity I'll never get again."

    The flight's other maintainer, Senior Airman Quantral Fletcher of Memphis, Tenn., said he may have found a calling in working on Scan Eagle.

    "As it comes near my cross-training window, I think more on going to aircraft maintenance every day," he said. "The best part of my job is being able to see my product in the air, being able to see the aircraft I work on fly without any flaws."

    The Scan Eagle operators and maintainers are driven to do all they can to make sure the UAS mission is executed and well as possible by a simple fact: Each of them had, at one time or another, been the Airman on the ground in need of that support.

    "I was one of those ground forces too," said Staff Sgt. Paul Forbes, 887th ESFS Scan Eagle operator. "I've been in their positions. It's nice knowing you have somebody up there watching over you in situations that provide a lot of danger for you and your team."

    "The thing I enjoy most is that I can provide support to people that I know personally," Banks said. "It's comforting that I can be looking out for them in a way that I couldn't be looking out for them before. I get to provide support for people I know, riding in those humvees putting themselves in harm's way, and I can provide support that will allow them to avoid situations that put them in danger."

    Baxter said knowing they're supporting their fellow security forces Airmen on the ground motivates them to provide as much support as the technology allows.

    "Our mission here is to provide support for the ground personnel, many of whom are Air Force personnel from our squadron," he explained. "So we know these people. We work with them. We train with them. So it gives us a little more hardship for us when we can't get out there and provide overwatch for them because they are our brethren."

    Lieutenant Kimmel said recruiting from within the squadron provides other advantages. With a knowledge of what tactics the ground forces use, the operators can anticipate their needs.

    "Being pulled off a fire team gives you a lot stronger sense of what you need to report to the squad leaders, what you need to relay, what kind of information they need," he said. "All of my people have a sense of what's going on. A lot of them have deployed here before. They have an understanding of what's going on outside the wire and can relay that effectively to the troops on those missions."

    Forbes said operators can respond to visual cues that allow them to provide different coverage before the squad leaders request it.

    "When the squads are out there maneuvering, I know the direction and what they might be doing, which helps me provide coverage for them," he said. "If they respond to something and something doesn't look right, we can provide more of a visual for them to understand what they're looking at."

    Kimmel said the system also allows coalition forces in the area to have a softer touch.

    "We can overwatch an area where there's activity, and we won't have to have a patrol on the ground," he said. "We can see what's going on, provide an assessment of what's going on, but they won't know we're there. We can stay hands off, but eyes on."

    The results, Baxter said, speak for themselves.

    "We've reduced the amount of IED emplacements," he said. "We've assisted the patrols in patrolling the indirect fire zones where it's sometimes hard for ground forces to get to because we can see the whole IDF zone in one pass. We've increased coverage of those IDF zones by 700 percent."

    Kimmel said the program, first stood up as a test, is worth expanding.

    "There's been a lot of firsts out here," he said. "One of the things we came out here to prove was if the Tier 2 concept would work where you marry up a small UAS with an outside the wire mission to conduct operations. Since we brought Scan Eagle out here, we've seen that it works, and it works very, very well. I think the biggest part about this program is that it needs to continue, it needs to get bigger for any outside the wire mission going on."

    Col. Alan Metzler, 586th Air Expeditionary Group commander, agreed that there is a need and a place for Scan Eagle in the mission.

    "There's a definite need for this kind of capability," Metzler said. "Dedicated, full motion video is highly sought after in theater, and having that capability at the tactical level here gives us the capability to respond to contingencies, gives us that day-to-day flying overwatch capability that really allows us to see over the horizon."

    "Having been one of those guys on the ground before, I can speak from experience and say that without Scan Eagle, the mission would continue," Fletcher said. "However, with Scan Eagle, the mission is way more effective. You're able to easily get the upper hand, and that's what the military always wants, the upper hand."

    Banks said his experience with Scan Eagle has prompted him to aim a little higher.

    "It's my hope that one day I'll be able to fly Predators," he said. "But I think it's important that people understand that enlisted people have the capability to fly unmanned aerial systems. Scan Eagle is a simple enough system that you can provide a pretty good training pipeline. With two month's training, you can have personnel out here operating the program."

    Kimmel said his troops have made significant impacts on local operations, and that watching his troops grow and learn has been the most rewarding part.

    "I think some of my better moments come when I watch my guys grow as operators," he said. "But my proudest moment was watching the elections, watching the Iraqis vote from the air."

    While there are still threats waiting outside the base to engage the 887th's patrols, the security forces Airmen go out with a little more confidence knowing their comrades are watching over them from above, detecting threats early and alerting them to danger, their proverbial angels on their shoulders.



    Date Taken: 03.10.2009
    Date Posted: 03.10.2009 01:52
    Story ID: 30927
    Location: IQ

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