TUCSON - After a grueling 10-hour day conducting airborne reconnaissance over Iraq, Lt. Col. Ross Pearson likes to wind down.
By driving home to his wife and kids.
Pearson’s mission as a member of the Arizona National Guard is overseas, but his duty is at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. From here, he and members of his unit control an MQ-1B Predator, an unmanned aircraft used for armed reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting.
Officials on Wednesday officially activated the 214th Reconnaissance Group, the first such unit in the Arizona National Guard. The 50-plus members of the unit have been using a Predator to assist troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since July 16. At present, the aircraft is working over Iraq.
“It’s what makes this group so special,” said Pearson, who heads group operations. “My team can help our ground troops at war and yet not be in the line of fire.”
The propeller-driven Predator flies up to 135 mph and can reach 25,000 feet. It can carry two laser-guided missiles.
Working in teams that usually consist of a pilot, sensor operator and mission coordinator, the unit keeps a Predator flying 20 hours a day, seven days a week. The pilots control the aircraft by satellite, with built-in cameras beaming back images.
Pearson said controlling the Predator from Tucson isn’t any different than doing it overseas.
“This is the best way to mix technology and safety in a war situation,” Pearson said. “We all still feel the rush when there’s any danger to our men and women out there.”
Adjutant Gen. David P. Rataczak said the Arizona National Guard can put the Predator to other uses when it returns from overseas.
“Border security, wildland fires, lost hikers, we can help with all these situations,” Rataczak said.
The Predator eventually will be based at Fort Huachuca, next to Sierra Vista. A maintenance facility and hangar is expected to be completed by 2011.
Arizona joins California and North Dakota as the first states to add National Guard Predator units.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used a different version of the Predator, the MQ-9, for surveillance along Arizona’s border with Mexico.