At the time the attack was launched, the US army was flying seven UAVs, including MQ-1C Gray Eagles, over Iraq to monitor bases where US-led coalition forces are deployed, AFP said in a report on Wednesday.
Having received advance warning from superiors, most of the 1,500 US soldiers at the base had been hidden in bunkers for two hours, but 14 pilots had stayed in containers-turned-cockpits to remotely fly the American drones and “monitor essential feeds from their high-powered cameras,” according to the report.
One of the pilots, 26-year-old Staff Sergeant Costin Herwig who was flying a Gray Eagle, told AFP that he “accepted fate” after volleys of Iranian missiles poured on the air base, with the first missile blasting dust into their shelter.
"We thought we were basically done," he said.
The American forces said the volleys of missiles lasted for three hours, slamming into sleeping quarters directly adjacent to the pilots' operations rooms and inflicting damage on fiber lines, thus disrupting communication with the drones.
The fiber lines link the virtual cockpits to antennas then satellites that send signals to the Gray Eagles and pull the cameras' feeds back onto the screens at Ain al-Assad, according to the soldiers.
"No more than a minute after the last round hit, I was heading over to the bunkers on the far back side and saw the fire was burning all through our fiber lines," said First Sergeant Wesley Kilpatrick, adding, "With the fiber lines burnt, there was no control."
The Iranian ballistic missiles had also punched holes across Ain al-Assad's airfield and the control tower was empty, the report said.