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An unmanned aerial vehicle, like the Shadow, has been used in actual battles in the war on terrorism, along with gathering information on the enemy.
An unmanned aerial vehicle, like the Shadow, has been used in actual battles in the war on terrorism, along with gathering information on the enemy. (Courtesy AAI Corp.)
An unmanned aerial vehicle, like the Shadow, has been used in actual battles in the war on terrorism, along with gathering information on the enemy.
An unmanned aerial vehicle, like the Shadow, has been used in actual battles in the war on terrorism, along with gathering information on the enemy. (Courtesy AAI Corp.)
Staff Sgt. Thomas Finch became an unmanned aerial vehicle pilot after a UAV saved his squad in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Thomas Finch became an unmanned aerial vehicle pilot after a UAV saved his squad in Afghanistan. (LeAnne MacAllister / U.S. Army)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Staff Sgt. Thomas Finch is a believer.

Finch believes in the might of little airplanes that others might mistake for toys, so much so that he’s learned to fly them in order to do for others what UAV pilots once did for him.

Help them out of a jam. Save their lives.

Now he’s an unmanned aerial vehicle pilot, getting ready to deploy to Iraq with half of Company C, 501st Military Intelligence Battalion to support the 1st Armored Divisions’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Though he’s a relative rookie, he has a profound understanding of what UAVs can do.

It was March 2, 2002 when Finch — then a light infantry scout with the Fort Drum, NY.-based 10th Mountain Division — stepped out of a CH-47 Chinook and into Afghanistan’s fabled Shahikot Valley and the middle of Operation Anaconda.

“It wasn’t two minutes after we stepped out of the Chinooks that we started taking heavy fire,” he said. Taliban fighters were throwing everything at his company-sized force — small arms, artillery and mortars. “We had 32 wounded in the first two hours,” Finch said, including himself in that number.

The fighting was so intense that Air Force A-10s and Apaches had to break off, shot up and out of fuel and ammunition. Finch and his 11-man squad wound up surrounded by an estimated 50 enemy fighters, and with no air cover for two hours.

The situation was grim “when I looked over at my SAW gunner, and said, ‘What’s that?’” Finch recalled. “It was a buzzzzzzzz sound … like a lawnmower on crack.”

“He pointed and said, ‘There it is!’ and a gray-blue shadow flew below us.”

About 30 seconds later, an Air Force radioman, or “E-Tac,” with Finch’s unit heard a voice on their frequency — the voice of the officer guiding an Air Force Predator drone. “The guy said, ‘This is a weapons platform. I have two missiles. What do you need?’”

What he needed — and got — were blasts that killed many of the Taliban and drove off the rest.

Later, Finch was impressed that as he lay wounded in the hospital, the Predator crew came to visit him. So impressed that he decided to join the drone revolution currently sweeping the Army.

Finch, 31, from New Iberia, La., flies with a new Baumholder-based tactical UAV company — part of the larger Wackernheim-based 501st MI battalion. The company just started flying in April after arriving in Baumholder last March, said 1st Lt. William Weiland.

“At times it was like a whirlwind,” Weiland said of the rush to set up systems, which includes RQ-7B air vehicles, ground control stations, as well as other components and support equipment. After training in Baumholder and Grafenwöhr they went to maneuver training at Hohenfehls to integrate into the 1st AD’s 2nd Brigade.

The 501st is the first unit to field a UAV company in Germany, rather than deploying from the military intelligence center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

“Born and nurtured in Germany,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Faulkner, 501st MI commander. The new unit is part of an increasing emphasis on giving commanders what is known as “a God’s eye view of the battlefield.”

In July alone, the Army spent $129 million for 12 additional Shadow systems, which include 48 drones, according to Department of Defense contracts.

The system, called Shadow 200, includes camera-and-sensor equipped drones, flown via computer-gamelike controls, just the thing for smart young soldiers, Weiland said.

Which is where Finch comes in.

After his Anaconda wounds and other dust-ups — he’s been shot five times, stabbed twice and hit with shrapnel from an RPG — Finch was too beat up to stay an infantryman.

“I’m a bullet magnet, but nothing ever happens to the people around me,” he said, a grin breaking out as he pointed out wounds to his head, back and foot, among other locations.

Looking at a medical discharge, Finch decided that it was time to pursue a new line of work. So instead of getting out, he was able to change military occupational specialty from 11 Bravo to 96 Uniform, or UAV pilot. “I’m done pounding ground.”

Not that it was easy to move from the conventional Army to being commanders’ high-tech eyes in the sky.

Actually flying the UAVs is fairly easy, Finch said. What’s not so easy is getting through the same Federal Aviation Administration material pilots must master.

Though a UAV pilot stays on the ground, the drones are still aircraft and subject to all FAA visual flight rule requirements, Weiland said.

During several months at the UAV course at Fort Huachuca, “the FAA [requirements] beat me up,” Finch said, wincing. “I’m not going to lie.”

Especially navigation. The Army, he said, “taught me to land nav all over the world. That’s three-dimensional. But trying to land nav in the air … that’s something else.”

But he did it, and now he’s going to Iraq, convinced he can complete the circle from saved to savior.

To the untrained eye, the UAVs are underwhelming and deceptively toylike, said Weiland, Faulkner and Finch. Unlike the large Air Force Predator, the 501st’s drones don’t even have weapons, they said. But they can provide information, and information is power.

“Fifty years ago, might made right,” Finch said. “Now, technology makes right.”

“I can save others’ lives.”

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