The first person to fire a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone in combat and destroy a target writes here about his experience. Scott Swanson has never written about this before. Read on. The Editor.
Flying a Predator drone in combat is nothing like playing a video game. Take it from me, the first person to pull the trigger in a lethal missile strike from a Predator.
As one of the early Air Force pilots to fly that Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV, I cringe when people make snide comments about the “Chair Force.” No, the pilot of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft can’t hear his plane’s engine, feel its motion, or smell that airplane smell; and yes, he (or she) has a joystick and throttle and a couple of TV screens in front of him. But there the comparison ends. Mentally, the pilot is inside a Predator, though the drone is half a world away. Emotionally, he is at war.
That was exactly how I felt one day in September 2000 when I saw Osama Bin Laden—or UBL, as we knew him—live on our Predator’s video screen. I was sitting in the pilot’s seat in our Ground Control Station (GCS) much of that afternoon. My sensor operator steering the camera was Master Sgt. Jeff Guay. As I orbited our Predator over Tarnak Farms, a dusty jumble of buildings in a mud-walled compound just outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, we spotted a strikingly tall man in white robes being treated deferentially by a group of men. Jeff and I immediately knew we had bin Laden in our sights: the U.S. had been searching for UBL for years and now here he was, exquisitely framed on our screen. As he moved around the compound, we followed. As he entered a building on the farm, we watched. But watch was all we could do—at the time, no Predator was armed.
Shortly after UBL entered that building, I turned the aircraft’s controls over to a pilot nicknamed Big. Within minutes of the switch, we were alerted to a military jet being launched from a nearby airfield. Jeff swung the sensor ball around and zoomed in on an Afghan MiG-21 fighter jet; it soon became clear that we were its target. Our hearts raced as Big maneuvered the Predator and Jeff kept the MiG in sight. To avoid being shot from the sky, we jinked, banked and flew other evasive maneuvers, just as if we were actually inside the aircraft. Other pilots would have gotten a laugh if they could have seen our bodies twisting and leaning to match the images on the screen as we somehow managed to evade the MiG and escape the area. The mission was every bit as demanding as any I’d flown as an MH-60G PAVEHAWK helicopter pilot.
Spotting bin Laden that day was a driving factor in the decision to accelerate the effort to arm the Predator with Hellfire missiles. A year later, just days before 9/11, we were finally ready to go hunting. The air war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001 and that night we provided prestrike reconnaissance and real-time threat reports to incoming B-2 bombers. Though we were working in a GCS on the parking lot of a government agency in suburban Virginia, we guided fighters onto time-sensitive targets, acting like a forward air controller. But we also carried missiles on our wings: I was the Pilot in Command, my fingers on the arming button and trigger for our missiles; Jeff Guay was the sensor operator, steering the targeting laser. We had spent many hours preparing for this moment, but a palpable sense of apprehension hung in the air. The Predator system was by no means mature; it was little more than a prototype.
As we got the order to fire, I whispered the pilot’s prayer: “Oh Lord, please don’t let me screw up.” I pulled the trigger, called “weapon away” and flew straight and level. It was then up to Jeff to keep crosshairs on the target. The time until impact seemed an eternity; then, in an instant, the screen was filled by a bright white bloom of light. As the bloom dissipated, we saw an object move quickly across the screen, flailing like a ragdoll tossed in the air. It was a body, twisting and contorting and glowing from the heat of the blast. Nearly a decade-and-a-half after that first-ever intercontinental air strike by a UAV, that fleeting image remains burned into my memory.
Targeting and taking out an enemy that night felt nothing like a video game. A month later, when another Predator crew fired a Hellfire at Mohammed Atef—the third most important member of Al Qaeda—we felt no jubilation when we learned that Atef had been killed. We were professionals, and as the first group of Air Force pilots ever to fly armed Predators, we felt the satisfaction that comes with knowing that we’d done our jobs and done them well. But to all of us who fly or have flown armed UAVs, one thing is as clear as the sharpest video image: war is not now, nor will it ever be, a game.
Scott Swanson served from 1987-2007 as an Air Force special operations (AFSOC) and rescue helicopter pilot, UAV pilot and acquisition officer. Now an international consultant who helps small companies commercialize emerging technologies, Swanson served as chief test pilot for the special Air Force unit that tested and employed the first armed Predator drones.