Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Air Guard Predator pilots increase combat air patrols

An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft assigned to the Arizona Air National Guard's 214th Reconnaissance Group is parked in a hanger at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., following the unit's activation in August 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Kinsey)

by Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith, National Guard Bureau Public Affairs

Although they are some of the busiest pilots in the U.S. military, Air National Guard pilots who are now flying unmanned aircraft from the ground said they still climb into the cockpit and get some flight time whenever they can.

Lt. Col. Rick Gibney, operations group commander and MQ-1 Predator pilot for the North Dakota Air Guard's 178th Reconnaissance Squadron, said he and other pilots who have switched from flying F-16 Fighting Falcons to piloting unmanned aircraft thousands of miles away are finding ways to get back into the wild blue yonder.

"There are a number of us who are private pilots who still get flying time in some way," said Colonel Gibney. He added that his squadron has full-time airline pilots who are also "fully engaged in the Predator mission."

But finding free time for anything now is not so easy, he said. Pilots in Air National Guard Predator squadrons have more than doubled their combat air patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan to support the war-fight, so much so that Colonel Gibney added himself to the aircrew's work schedule. That helps make it possible for his pilots to take leave, go flying or just relax.

Guard officials said the remotely piloted Predator with its full motion video is praised regularly by ground forces who are rounding up criminals in Iraq and Afghanistan. The turbo-prop aircraft's strength rests in its ability to fly for extended hours while watching over ground convoys and raids.

Since 2005, Air Guard officials have stood up three Predator units in California, Arizona and North Dakota that maintain at least seven overseas CAPs around the clock. One additional squadron is standing up in Texas. Guard officials also are standing up their first MQ-9 Reaper squadron in New York.

Air Guard CAPs are coordinated through the Air Force's 432d Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The active-duty wing is the central hub for all MQ-1 and MQ-9 unmanned aircraft missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Initial plans called for one CAP per Air Guard squadron, Colonel Gibney said. But the success of the Predator in the war on terror brought demands for more patrols.

"We know that Predator is critical to the nation's defense," said Col. Robert Becklund, commander for the 119th Wing in Fargo, N.D., that oversees both the Predator squadron and a C-21 airlift squadron. He added that 50 percent of his Airmen have retrained for new specialties and missions since 2005. More than two thirds of the wing's F-16 pilots chose to retrain for Predator.

The squadron stood up its first Predator CAP in June 2007. Missions are piloted remotely from a small, high-security building on the Fargo base that communicates to the aircraft and joint forces that are thousands of miles away. The wing took on a second CAP mission earlier this year with no additional manning.

Becklund said morale is high among his pilots despite the squadron's 100-percent mobilization.

"We're glad to be in these missions right now," Colonel Becklund said.

Colonel Gibney said the squadron may soon rotate Predator pilots for operational breaks and flight time through its C-21 "bridge" mission, which in the future may put them in the cockpit of a new C-27 Spartan, joint cargo aircraft.

"We want to give them the opportunity," said Colonel Gibney. "So it's not a one-way door that you go into Predator and that's where you are for the rest of your career."

But why the pilots choose to climb out of their cockpits and fly the Predator varies greatly, said Colonel Gibney.

"You go down the list and everyone has a different reason for it," he said. "Maybe they wanted to be closer to home yet still serve in the warfight."

"I fly commercially on the outside, so this is the opportunity to do a mission that affects what's going on with the war every day, but I still get to fly," said a Predator pilot from the California Air Guard's 196th Reconnaissance Squadron, who withheld her name for security purposes. "That's why I stayed."

California Air Guard pilots operated the Guard's first Predator CAP at Nellis AFB, Nev., in 2006. Its pilots retrained from flying KC-135 Stratotankers after the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act relocated their aircraft to several other bases.

The squadron now is operating three overseas CAPs around the clock from their home at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., and they receive letters of thanks from Soldiers in Iraq.

In western New York, Airmen from the state's 174th Fighter Wing recently returned from Iraq where they got to see Predators operate. That was their final F-16 deployment. The Air Guard members soon will begin training as ground-pilots, sensor operators and as other technicians for a new MQ-9 Reaper mission.

"We just got back from Operation Iraqi Freedom doing close air support with the F-16. Now we are going to do the same mission with the MQ-9," said Col. Greg Semmel, operations group commander.

Colonel Semmel agreed that their qualified, experienced pilots will be very valuable to the transition.

"Looking from our perspective, it's really essential for the initial cadre to come from a background where they are familiar with the mission," he said.

"The seasoned aviators are the people the Guard brings to this fight and are exactly the people needed in the Predator," said Colonel Gibney. "Not just tactically, but in the flying sense. The more seasoned the better."