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Molding Generations of Air Force Superiority

  • Published
  • By Lt.. Col. Thomas McCurley
  • 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron
It was another winter day in Southwest Asia dodging clouds and avoiding icing that could destroy my fragile aircraft. I didn't get excited when we found our target through the layered deck below. We'd seen him before, but the weather just wouldn't cooperate for an air strike. This time, he was out in the open thinking we couldn't find him.

The call to spin up my missiles came as a surprise. We only got that word once the mission commander had finished verifying the rules of engagement and had received a clearance to engage. Shortly after, I got the call to take out the target.

Now I had to do everything I had been taught to avoid during pilot training. I first penetrated a thick icing layer that immediately coated my aircraft, weighing it down and making its turns sluggish. Worse, I wasn't sure the missile would see the target through the ice or properly depart the shellacked rail. Then, I had to fly down a blind canyon, just skimming the weather layer, unable to turn around without hitting the rugged terrain. I was forced to pull the trigger 3,500 feet below the missile's minimum employment altitude. I had only one chance to get the shot.

The missile left the rail, momentarily washing out my pod's picture, and ducked up into the clouds. The laser fired true as I counted down the expected time of flight hoping the missile would see the spot when it came back down. Five, four, three, two....Splash! A major threat in the region had been eliminated.

Nearly 8,000 miles away I sat in my cockpit breathing a sigh of relief. My plane was an MQ-1B Predator.

It occurred to me later that day that the Air Force had just entered a great transformation as significant as that seen following World War I. In 1916, artillery comprised the primary means for long distance ordnance delivery. Innovative minds molded the birth of the air forces when they generated the bomber and fighter missions. By 1918, the aircraft had superseded artillery as the principle long range threat, leaving behind its surveillance-only mission set.

In the 1990's, the RQ-1A quietly mewled its existence in Kosovo and Southwest Asia, providing limited imagery to an unappreciative public. Predators were a novelty, much like aircraft were in 1910.

The years following Sept 11 saw a nearly exact replication of WWI in the genesis of Predator operations. RQ-1A's were replaced by the new MQ-1B and its AGM-114 Hellfire missile. The first shot fired in defense of friendly forces ushered in a new era of weapons development reminiscent of biplanes evolving from surveillance to full scale fighters. Remotely Piloted Aircraft now roar through the theaters.

In eight years of flying the Predator, I've seen our combat air patrols increase more than twenty-fold to fight terror world-wide. Perhaps it was visionary when General Hap Arnold said, "We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all. Take everything you've learned about aviation in war, throw it out of the window, and let's go to work on tomorrow's aviation. It will be different from anything the world has ever seen."

The 380th AIR Expeditionary Wing fulfills Arnold's far reaching prediction as the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron executes its Armed Reconnaissance, Strike, CAS, and CSAR mission sets while developing tactics to further expand our capability to Win!