Inside the Drone War: On the Ground and in the Virtual Cockpit With America's New Lethal Spy

ABC News granted exclusive access to drone pilots at California Air Force base.

January 12, 2010, 1:32 PM

Jan. 12, 2010— -- Far from the mountains of Afghanistan, an American Air Force base sits in California. It is here where unmanned Predator drones are flown by remote control. They're America's newest lethal spy, hovering 3 miles above the ground in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq. Forty are in the air at any single moment, thousands of miles away from their desk-bound pilots.

ABC News was given exclusive access to the ground control station at the California base, one of six bases in the country where the planes are flown.

Each drone is controlled by a two-man team, seated in front of a video screen clutching a joystick. On the screens, the men see live video from the drones in Afghanistan, picking out armed enemies on the ground who have no idea they're being watched. The pilot can launch a missile simply by pulling a trigger.

The drones send back images in the blink of an eye -- it takes just 1.7 seconds for the imagery to travel through 12 time zones. The video travels from the drone to a satellite and then down to a classified location in Europe. From there, it flows through a fiber optic nerve across the Atlantic Ocean to reach the California base. But it's not finished -- the signal then branches out to other bases, the Pentagon, and right back to the ground commander in Afghanistan.

The drones are armed with a 500-pound bomb that destroys with percussive force or an equally powerful Hellfire missile that leaves a crater 15 feet wide and two feet deep.

We watched as a pilot monitored insurgents planting an IED in northern Afghanistan. It made a good target, and with the punch of a button, a Hellfire missile launched, taking the insurgents out.

The missiles are fired only 15 percent of the time a potential target is identified, and only if a ground team can make a positive identification of the target.

According to Col. Randall Ball of the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing, the decision to fire a weapon "is no different from an F-15 pilot -- he has the same adrenaline rush and goes through those procedures and does things as he's trained."

Some might wonder if there's a fear of making mistakes when you're so far removed from the battlefield, but to that, Ball says, "Is there a possibility that something could go wrong? Always. But that's not our mindset. I don't think the way we are prosecuting the war could be done without the drones."

The Obama administration has approved skyrocketing usage of drones -- 400 hours a day, a 300 percent increase.

On this one California base alone, over the last six months, not one hour has gone by when Air Force pilots haven't been watching over Afghanistan through the eyes of a at least one Predator drone. The technology has been such a game-changer that over the next year, the Air Force will now train more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

It can be a strange experience for the pilots. Lt. Col. Dana Hessheimer says, "You're in a fight 7,500 miles away and then you go to your kid's soccer game."

It's a stark contrast to all the soldiers who don't make it back to their children, but the drone pilots know their work is important. Every minute in the cockpit helps defend their military colleagues on the battlefield and improve their chances of getting home alive.

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