Air Force spy plane to fly over fire zone

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Air Force launched one of its Global Hawk spy planes Thursday to capture images of the Southern California fires -- the first domestic surveillance mission for the unmanned drone.

Military officials hope that the infrared images relayed by the plane will improve the ability of civilian authorities to predict the direction the fires and determine where the blazes are most intense.

Brig. Gen James O. Poss, director of intelligence at the Air Combat Command at Virginia's Langley Air Force Base, said commanders also hope that the Global Hawk's sensors will provide more useful images than those produced by satellites and other aircraft.

But exactly how useful the spy planes will prove in fighting fires is not yet known.

"This is the United States Air Force you are talking to," Poss said. "We designed these things to locate targets -- to help us start fires, not put them out."

The Air Force drone is the second unmanned craft in the skies over the Southern California wildfires. On Wednesday, NASA launched its Ikhana unmanned system. The Ikhana, a version of the military's Predator modified for civilian research missions, also captures thermal images while flying at a lower altitude than the Global Hawk. Both can fly 20 hours or more without refueling.

The Global Hawk, which is intensively used in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, has undergone test flights in the United States. But Poss said Thursday's flight was the first mission over America to provide reconnaissance images to civilian authorities.

"This is the first time we have been used this system to provide imagery to civil authorities in response to a civil emergency," he said.

Air Force officials decided to offer the Global Hawk on Tuesday. But the plane was not launched earlier, military officials said, because they were awaiting formal requests from local officials. Such requests are required before military equipment can be used inside the U.S.

The Global Hawk flies about 13 miles above the ground, much higher than commercial aircraft, and is controlled by pilots on the ground at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, where the unmanned plane was launched about 6 p.m. Thursday. The pilots conducting the fire missions will be drawn from the same group responsible for remotely flying the Global Hawk over Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, the Air Force also launched a U2 spy plane that recorded high-resolution photographs of the damage throughout Southern California.

To help bring other aerial views to firefighters on the ground, the Air Force also is setting up a system to give rescue workers instant access to the aerial images.

The "Rover" laptop computer system captures images from Predator drones, Navy P-3 Orions and other planes and displays them on laptop computers. Light and portable, the Rover systems can be set up nearly anywhere.

Air Force Lt. Col. Chuck Manza, a Pentagon Rover action officer, said he hopes to use the Rovers to transmit aerial images into fire operations centers and to firefighters on the front lines.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," Manza said. "It could help people tell how the fire lines are shifting and maybe catch hot spots as they pop up."

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