Arizona National Guard unit flying Predator drones overseas

It's called a Predator, and it's not a drone, it's a remotely-piloted aircraft, or RPA, according to the U.S. Air Force.

The Arizona Air National Guard is now flying Predators right here in the state. A new base is gearing up to keep the crews finely honed for missions they already fly overseas.

Somewhere overseas, in the skies above hostile territory, a U.S. Air Force RPA fires a missile.

And somewhere down below that missile explodes near it's target.

Is it Al Qaeda in Yemen? ISIS in Iraq? Or the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Whatever the target, the United States has shown again and again, a determination to hunt down terrorists with it's favorite weapon, the MQ-1 Predator.

"While it seems very simple on the outside, the function that it performs is really amazing," said Col. Troy Daniels, Commander of the 214th Reconnaissance Group.

At Fort Huachuca on the Arizona-Mexico border, at what was once a cold war listening post, the base is home to the 214th Group, and it's four MQ-1 Predators. Col. Daniels is a pilot in both the F-16 and the MQ-1.

"We first did out initial flight in September of 2014," said Col. Daniels.

Daniels says unlike flying an F-16, a Predator pilot must project himself into the 3D environment of his aircraft, which may be thousands of miles away.

"They need to gain situation awareness quickly and maintain that for a long period of time," he said.

The base at Ft. Huachuca allows the crews to hone their skills as they fly unarmed Predators over southern Arizona.

"Absolutely they are unarmed and training only," said Daniels.

It's the other base in Tucson where they fly armed Predator missions over enemy territory, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The contributions of our Predator operations overseas are very important to our troops on the ground," said Daniels.

From Tucson at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, crews communicate through a satellite network called "The Defense Satellite Communications System." The signal travels from one satellite to another until it is received by a Predator already in the air over its patrol area.

"Our combatant commanders have a high demand for our ability and capabilities that we bring to them," he said.

The 214th has two missions; flying combat air support overseas, and flying emergency missions from the base at Fort Huachuca. Video shows a Predator flying over a fire in southern California last year. Soon, they'll be able to do the same thing here.

"It could be any emergency from forest fires, to search and rescue situations," said Daniels.

At Ft. Huachuca, the portable unit where the crew flies the Predator is off limits to FOX 10's cameras. Defense Department video from a similar operation shows a three man team inside. A pilot, a sensor operator, and an intelligence coordinator are flying the Predator at all times.

"It is not a drone that makes its own autonomous decisions, so we have a pilot in control of the aircraft at all times," he said.

But what if for some reason the ground-based pilots lose contact with a Predator flying? Col. Daniels says the Predator knows what to do.

"If the aircraft loses contact it does not cease to fly, it continues flying, it just transitions to a pre-planned autopilot course and returns home... it's an amazing piece of technology," said Daniels.

Amazing as it is, the Predator is about to be replaced. Starting next year the 214th will transition to the newer MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper has the ability to stay in the air longer, and carry about a dozen Hellfire missiles.