By Spc. Ryan Stroud

1st Cavalry Division public affairs

BAQUBAH, Iraq – The skies were empty with no clouds in sight as the Unmanned Aerial Systems team from Alpha Company, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, loaded their small plane, known as a "bird," onto a launcher to be shot into the sky.

The bird's job will be to perform surveillance of the area surrounding Forward Operating Base Warhorse, located in Baqubah, Iraq.

The bird is a new tool the armed services have been using to help save soldiers' lives in Iraq.

Soldiers inspect the launcher and the waiting bird, making sure all the pre-flight checks are complete. Then the crew members huddle on the opposite side of the runway, headphones on to protect their ears, and wait for the launch. Moments later, the bird launches into the open sky at speeds up to 80 mph, ready to begin its surveillance mission.

"This job is important because (the troops) might not be able to see what's beyond a hill or what's happening ahead of them," Spc. Renay Forney said, "So we give the soldiers an idea of what's going on around them, so they can get a better feeling of their surroundings and feel more comfortable."

Forney is one of the systems operators, controlling the launch and monitoring the progress of the flight until the bird reaches a higher altitude. Once the bird reaches a certain point, Forney will hand over control to the ground-control station, which will monitor the flight, control the camera and provide further information to the soldier, she said.

"We do surveillance, reconnaissance and support missions to help the troops on the ground," Forney said. "A lot of our time is consumed by looking for insurgents."

"We also assist units by having a bird in the air and giving them a tail number," Spc. Sean Sowles said. "When they plug the number into their systems, they can see what we're seeing and that really helps them out. They can't control the birds, but they can request us to go to an area that might help their unit with their current mission."

Sowles is one of the team's systems repair soldiers, maintaining the birds, their launchers and conducting pre-flight checks to secure a successful launch into the sky.

After flying for a maximum suggested time, the bird will land and the team will begin its routine checks and preparations for its next flight.

"I love this job," Sowles said. "There's just so many capabilities this bird can do. It's amazing to work with and it's very exciting. You get used to the system and you learn new things every day."

"I also love this," Forney added. "You do learn something new every day. The guys teach me about their jobs and the maintenance of the bird. This is a unique experience and I'm glad to be a part of it."

Though Unmanned Aerial Systems, formally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are new to the services, Forney believes it will become a major asset to units in future deployments.

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