RPA Changeover Complete at 386th AEW

Maintainers perform final preflight procedures prior to a Block 5 MQ-9 Reaper taking off June 23, 2017, in Southwest Asia. This marked the block’s first combat flight in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. USAF photo by SrA. Damon Kasberg.

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, Southwest Asia—The 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron recently made the transition from the MQ-1 Predator to the MQ-9 Reaper: a bigger, more powerful aircraft, with better cameras, and the ability to carry more ordnance to the fight.

“It’s a little more robust platform,” said Lt. Col. Jason, commander of the 46th EATKS, which is part of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing. (The Air Force does not release the full names of RPA operators down range.)

The changeover was necessary because the Air Force will soon retire the Predator, so the contracts and funding for it ended Sept. 30, explained Col. Andrew Purath, vice commander of the 386th AEW.

However, he said, the Reaper has additional capabilities: Namely, it can carry four Hellfire missiles, compared to the one carried by the Predator, and it can also carry 500-pound bombs.

“What the MQ-9 really allows us to do is obviously put a little bigger weapon load onto the aircraft, and ultimately kind of gives the AOR first, and then the Air Force as a whole, one platform” that everyone is using, “so everybody knows what they’ve got,” Purath said.

Though the changeover went smoothly, Purath and Jason said the success was based on the around-the-clock work of maintenance airmen.

The MQ-1s were maintained by contractors, but for the MQ-9s, about four dozen uniformed airmen were tasked last-minute with deploying to conduct the day-to-day maintenance, and also to meet the unassembled aircraft here, Purath said.

“They had about 10 days from start to finish to unpack them, get them put together, get them flight checked, so that was pretty astounding in a lot of ways, to the point where the wing commander and I, after about four days, kind of told them they needed to go take a nap,” he said. “They were working so hard, and working straight through to get to the finish line.”

In the end, the maintainers were able to meet the initial operational capability date and get the planes in the air, Purath said, which was “pretty impressive.”

Jason agreed, saying that the squadron met all of its assigned combat lines, though the maintenance team had to work “extremely hard” to accomplish that.

He used the analogy of a duck that looks like it is gliding along the water effortlessly, but is actually paddling furiously under the surface.

“There were a lot of people working very hard to make it happen,” he added.

In addition to the maintenance team, the transition also required new ground support equipment, new pilots, additional weapons, and troops to put the weapons together and load them, Jason said.

The pilots here fly the planes for takeoff and landing, while pilots in the United States fly the missions. It’s because there is a two-second delay with the satellite link, Jason said, which “isn’t an issue at all when we’re on target,” but it is problematic for launch and recovery.

“When you come in to land with a two-second delay, if you get a gust of wind and wait two seconds before you put the control input in, it’s not going to end well,” he said.

And 1st Lt. Maria, one of the MQ-9 pilots, said she particularly enjoys doing the takeoffs and landings.

“I think it’s really fun to do the taxiing, takeoff, handover. I find that’s a little more hands-on and engaging. So I really enjoy that part of it,” she said.