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Drone flag souvenirs a hit for US air force

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Craig Whitlock

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An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2008.

An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2008.

The US military is highly secretive about its drone operations, but for people in the know, the Air Force will gladly oblige with a memorable souvenir.

Last year, the Air Force's 414th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates four Predator drones at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, began a commemorative flag-flying program. Before the start of a mission, Air Force personnel would tuck a neatly folded Stars and Stripes into the mosquito-shaped drone's fuselage, where it would remain for the duration of the 22-hour round-trip flight to northern Iraq.

Afterward, the flags were presented to visitors or delivered to lucky recipients in the United States, along with a personalised certificate. Included were details about the surveillance operation, code-named Nomad Shadow, and facts about the drone on which the flag was flown.

Although the Air Force doesn't widely advertise the program, it posted an article describing it on the Incirlik Air Base website in May 2012.

"A lot of people don't know about it until we present it to someone they know or a friend," said an Air Force captain that the article only identified by his first name, Cedric. "Then they're like, 'Oh, I want one. What do I need to do?' "

The Air Force has a tradition of offering souvenir flags that have flown on its warplanes, but almost always with an actual pilot in the cockpit. Having an Old Glory that flew on a Predator might be especially prized, given the intense secrecy surrounding drone operations.

Spokesmen for the Air Force and Pentagon declined to comment or to say how many drone flags have been handed out as mementos - or whether the program is still active. But the Predator souvenirs were a big hit. The 414th squadron reported getting more than three dozen requests for flags in just three weeks after they began flying them.

"They can choose the day they want the flag flown, and as long as the weather is cooperating, we'll have it flown on that day," Cedric was quoted as saying. "We haven't missed a day yet."

Washington Post