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Desert Hawk helps protect Tallil
Preparing for flight
TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq -- Staff Sgt. Joseph Vialpando (left) and Staff Sgt. Michael Roth prepare the Desert Hawk aircraft for flight. The lightweight aircraft is part of the Force Protection Airborne Surveillance System used here to look over the horizon for terrorist activities. Vialpando and Roth are part of the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Don Perrien)
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10/24/2003 - TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Not every unmanned aerial vehicle in the sky here is a Predator.

The 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron is using its "Desert Hawk" UAV here, providing an extra set of eyes in the sky for looking for potential terrorists and criminals.

"Desert Hawk allows us to interdict our adversaries before they are able to threaten (airmen) and resources," said Maj. Glen Christensen, 332nd ESFS commander. "With this equipment, we can achieve the desired . base defense."

The Desert Hawk UAV system's official name is the Force Protection Airborne Surveillance System, a small, 7-pound remote control led aircraft used by security forces airmen. The battery-powered aircraft has a wingspan of about 4 feet and flies for about an hour using its on-board rechargeable batteries.

For all the fancy adjectives and acronyms, the Desert Hawk is a remarkably simple, yet durable aircraft.

"The manual describes the plane as a state-of-the-art composite material, but it's actually got a lot more in common with a Styrofoam cup than anything else," said Staff Sgt. Michael Roth, 332nd ESFS Desert Hawk program manager. "It's pretty tough, but we can glue it back together if it breaks."

The little plane already has scars from missions here. Brown scuffs along the underside mark the plane's many landings on the desert plains, and small gray lines show the places where glue and tape connect the pieces replaced following missions.

"This plane has gone through a lot, but she's still flying," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Vialpando, 332nd ESFS's noncommissioned officer in charge of the Desert Hawk program. "The environment here makes it tough to fly, especially the wind. Getting the plane airborne, keeping it on track and catching it when it's done is probably the hardest part of the (Desert Hawk) mission here."

The surveillance system is launched by a bungee cord and controlled with a portable computer system by operators on the ground. One of the strengths of the system is in its flexibility. The Desert Hawk aircraft can change route while airborne by changing the waypoints in the computer's software program. The plane can also lift interchangeable payloads of color cameras and thermal imagers for day and night operations, enhancing the vision of security forces on the ground.

Vialpando is probably one of the Air Force's most experienced Desert Hawk operators, and the lessons learned elsewhere have helped him in his mission here.

"I operated the (system) up in Afghanistan during my last deployment, and learned a lot," he said. "In three months, we found weapons caches, 107 mm antiaircraft guns and other weapons with the Desert Hawk.

"So far we haven't found anything near that volatile, but we have found people trying to loot materials and scrap metal outside the wire near our base perimeter," Vialpando said. "That's a big concern for us because not only could those people present a threat to us, but also to themselves -- there's a lot of unexploded ordnance in that area just waiting to go off."

The base's security forces use the system as part of a comprehensive antiterrorism program. Together with remote sensors and standard foot patrols, the Predator's little brother helps keep the base and its people safe.

"Most of our UAV flights are supporting the squadron's random antiterrorism program," Roth said. "We'll vary our flight times and days of the week looking for signs of possible terrorist activity. We can be ready to fly almost anytime and see any part of the base and its surroundings quickly."

As the security forces airmen scan the sky of southern Iraq, the Desert Hawk is also returning images of the people returning to a normal way of life.

"It's kind of nice to see life outside the gates -- the caravans, vendors, sheep herders and such," Roth said. "We don't normally have a chance to go outside the perimeter here, so the (Desert Hawk) is one way we get to go 'off base' and see the Iraqi people we're helping protect."

For the security forces airmen operating the system, their rotation here has been both a challenge and an opportunity. Protecting the base while operating a piece of cutting-edge technology has been an experience the airmen said they will not soon forget.

"I feel like we're making a difference for our security forces on patrol at Tallil," Roth said. "Working with the Desert Hawk and supporting the mission here is something I'll remember for the rest of my career."