Fargo drone pilots fly missions with crew around the world

This simulator is used to train pilots who fly the Predator unmanned aircraft.
Courtesy L-3 Link Simulation & Training

The room in Fargo where pilots and camera operators fly missions is a high-security area.

Only mission crews are allowed inside the windowless room. They sit in high-backed chairs at workstations — keyboards, joysticks and several monitor screens that provide live video from the aircraft cameras. They've flown thousands of classified drone missions since 2007.

Sometimes a mission includes weapons, but most of the time the job involves watching enemy movements to help protect soldiers on the ground, or to gather intelligence.

"We are basically putting the airplane and the camera where we've been asked to do so," said Col. John Dougherty, a former fighter pilot who now commands the unmanned aircraft unit. "We do not set the priorities for what we look at, nor do we set the priorities of what we are seeing."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

The Predator aircraft, about the size of a small, single-engine airplane, is based thousands of miles away from the pilot. Crews on the ground in those locations maintain the Predators and handle take-offs and landings.

There are also communication experts who make sure the flight crew doesn't lose contact with the airplane. The $4 million aircraft can fly for as long as 40 hours, so a pilot often sees only part of the mission before handing off to a new crew.

Pilots in Fargo are in constant communication with commanders on the ground in Afghanistan and with imagery analysts in one of several Air Force ground stations.

This is the type of aircraft flown by the North Dakota Air National Guard. The aircraft are based overseas. The unit will use Predator unmanned aircraft based in Grand Forks for training. Rules for flying the aircraft in the U.S. are still being developed.
Courtesy North Dakota National Guard

That's where all the video from each mission gets analyzed. At least two analysts watch every drone video feed.

The analysts, pilots and ground troops often communicate by typing instant messages.

"If we see something that we think we need to spend more time looking at that, that'll be chatted out in real time chat between us," said the director of operations for a squadron in the 497th Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Group in Langley, Va.

She asked that we call her only Major Laura and not use her last name out of security concerns. The military fears drone crew members could be targeted by terrorists.

The analysts she supervises watch drone video to identify important information. Sometimes that happens in real time, sometimes the analysis takes 24 hours.

In those cases, a report is sent to troops on the ground, or to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

Predator missions make up about 25 percent of the analyst's workload, according to Major Laura. Video and photos from other unmanned and manned aircraft are also processed by the Air Force ground stations.

"We're aware this isn't just a video game. It may look like it but it is serious business," Major Laura said. "You're talking about real world and you're talking about real people that you're looking at and sometimes real lives that we are holding at risk or working to protect."

If a mission involves weapons, the decision to fire a missile is made by the pilot in Fargo and a weapons officer on the ground in Afghanistan, she said. "Whoever releases that weapon, you've just 'bought that bomb' is what we say."

"They are the final release authority. That said, if we see somebody come into the field of view that is very clearly a civilian then we absolutely have the authority to say, 'Stop, we see something, you need to hold weapons tight until we can sort out what this is.'"

But for the analysts in Virginia and the air crews in Fargo many missions are mundane.

Colonel Dougherty said the time is often spent watching people go about their daily lives. Nothing extraordinary happens. But some days they watch people die.

"It is a combat area. People's lives do get lost, both ours and theirs. Those things require time to process. And the fact that they tend to be only processed [by our pilots] visually and not using the other senses means they get processed in a little bit different way. But yes they get processed and I can tell you sometimes they get processed at two or three in the morning."

Dougherty said it's difficult to explain to a civilian how quickly the day can change from dull to deadly. But here's how he put it in context.

"I'm pretty sure that on your way to work today if you didn't have a deer run in front of you or anything else you probably hardly remember getting there. But if you had a deer run in front of you or some other event that occurred you probably remember that. Now if you hit the deer, that really alters your day."

Crews in Fargo have flown thousands of missions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Colonel Dougherty said they're transitioning to intelligence assignments, gathering information from hot spots around the world.

The North Dakota Air National Guard also recently redesignated two squadrons as intelligence units. They are undergoing a lengthy retraining to take on the new mission.