Early Predator Drone Pilot: I Had Bin Laden in My Crosshairs

A year before he was the first pilot to ever unleash a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone in combat, airman Scott Swanson said he was at the controls of another Predator back in 2000 when a man believed to be Osama bin Laden was directly in his crosshairs.

"As I orbited our Predator over Tarnak Farms, a dusty jumble of buildings in a mud-walled compound just outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, we spotted a strikingly tall man in white robes being treated deferentially by a group of men," Swanson writes in Breaking Defense today, his first public comments on the September 2000 incident, a year before the 9/11 attacks. "[Sensor operator Master Sgt.] Jeff [Guay] and I immediately knew we had bin Laden in our sights. The U.S. had been searching for OBL for years and now here he was, exquisitely framed on our screen."

One major problem: At the time, Predator drones were for reconnaissance only and didn't carry missiles. Bin Laden escaped from Tarnak and evaded American forces until he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs a decade later in May 2011.

It wasn't until a little more than a year after spotting bin Laden, and a month after the 9/11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans, that a Predator fired its first missile in combat at a different militant target on Oct. 7, 2001. Swanson said he pulled the trigger.

"We had spent many hours preparing for this moment, but a palpable sense of apprehension hung in the air," Swanson writes. "The Predator system was by no means mature; it was little more than a prototype… I pulled the trigger, called 'weapons away' and flew straight and level.

"The time until impact seemed an eternity; then, in an instant, the screen was filled by a bright white bloom of light. As the bloom dissipated, we saw an object move quickly across the screen, flailing like a ragdoll tossed in the air. It was a body, twisting and contorting and glowing from the heat of the blast. Nearly a decade-and-a-half after that first-ever intercontinental air strike by UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], that fleeting image remains burned in to my memory," he writes.

Swanson, who was previously identified in a history of the Predator written by veteran former Pentagon reporter Richard Whittle, said that he was breaking his silence publicly to combat the idea that flying drones is akin to playing videogames - that he "cringes" when he hears the mocking term for UAV program officials, "Chair Force."

"[T]o all of us who fly or have flown armed UAVs, one thing is as clear as the sharpest video image: war is not now, nor will it ever be, a game," he writes.

READ: War Is No Video Game - Not Even Remotely (BreakingDefense.com)

The Air Force's struggle with the "stigma" surrounding the drone program was the subject of an ABC News investigation in April, in which the service admitted that when compared to manned aircraft like fighter jets, the drone program is made up of "less skilled" pilots and "less competent" officers.

"Let's be honest, when people dream of flying… People in this generation didn't grow up and say, 'I want to fly an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft],'" Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Cassidy said at the time. "They were the ones that watched re-runs of 'Top Gun' and said, 'I want to be a fighter pilot.'… So in fact the people that were lower ranking [in flight school], I guess you could say, are the folks that went to RPAs.

"It doesn't mean they're bad pilots, or bad officers, it just meant you got to have some at the top and some at the bottom. That's how that worked," she said.

A serviceman involved in the drone program told ABC News that there is "definitely" a rivalry between drone pilots and those in manned aircraft. As he put it to ABC News in April, "Most pilots don't enjoy flying from a box."

ABC NEWS INVESTIGATION: Drone 'Stigma' Means 'Less Skilled' Pilots at Controls of Deadly Robots