An MQ-1 Predator sits on the flight line Dec. 8, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Creech, which began flying the aircraft when it was Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, will retire the Predator on Friday. Air Force photo by SrA Christian Clausen
The iconic MQ-1B Predator, which ushered in the age of drone warfare in the mid-1990s, will fly into the sunset on Friday.
The Air Force will hold an official retirement ceremony at Creech AFB, Nev., the headquarters of Air Force remotely piloted aircraft operations, on Friday, marking the end of the Predator’s reign in the air and the shift to an MQ-9-dominated RPA fleet.
Creech has flown the Predator since 1995 when it began its operational life. At the time, the base was called Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field. That same year, the Predator deployed to Albania and the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron stood up in Indian Springs. The squadron, later joined by the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, flew the Predator’s early missions, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for Operation Allied Force over the Balkans.
The Predator became an armed, constant eye in the sky in 2001 as Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off in Afghanistan. It has flown constant m?issions in the Middle East ever since, undergoing a series of modifications and upgrades to keep it combat relevant. The modern wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved the Predators capability, and that of pilots and sensor operators flying both unarmed and armed missions from air conditioned trailers in the Nevada desert.
“Wars are destructive,” Abraham Karem, the engineer whose feats in the 1970s and 1980s made the Predator possible, told Air Force Magazine last year. The goal is “to win with the minimum casualties, both us and them. And I think armed UAVs being able to … look at the targets for a long time and throw a small missile can do that better than an F-16 coming in with a 2,000-pound bomb.”
The Air Force in 2011 received the last of its 268 Predators, at the time having accumulated more than 900,000 flight hours with a mission capable rate of 90 percent. As of 2017, the Air Force had 129 of the MQ-1s left. Some of the airframes have already made their way to museums in the US and England.
With the Predator retired, the Air Force plans to field 346 MQ-9 Reapers, which have better sensors, more fuel efficient engines, a higher ceiling, and larger armaments. Predators finished their combat mission in the Middle East last year as expeditionary squadrons transitioned to the MQ-9s.
“The Predator has been a workhorse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the fight against ISIS,” said Lt. Col. Douglas, commander of the 361st Expeditionary Attack Squadron in Southwest Asia as his unit flew its final MQ-1 flight in July. “When you see the results everyday on the battlefield, it’s unfathomable at times.”
The Air Force is retraining MQ-1 pilots and sensor operators to transition them from Predators to Reapers under a process that began in February of last year.
While Friday marks the ceremonial retirement of the aircraft, the transition from Predators to Reapers will not be completed until later this year, according to the Air Force. The US Army will also continue flying its derivative of the Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.