Total force Airmen surpass MQ-9 aircrew training goal

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Collette Brooks
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs

The 491st Attack Squadron is a geographically separated unit from Holloman Air Force Base. Active-duty Airmen from across the Air Force, to include Holloman, are continuing to build strong bonds with Air National Guardsmen from the 174th Attack Wing, during daily MQ-9 Reaper operations on Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, New York.

The integration of active duty and ANG members has created many opportunities for both units to learn, teach and grow together.

“Since our arrival in autumn 2018, then as a detachment and now as a squadron, we’ve gradually increased our contribution to the same kind of MQ-9 training that’s happening at Holloman,” said Lt. Col. Leslie McPeak, 491st ATKS commander. “Initially, we were tasked with training the equivalent of 15 combat aircrews; however, as more instructors and maintainers have arrived that’s increased to 27.”

Lt. Col. Aaron Brown, 108th ATKS commander, said the active duty component recognized that one of the best ways to increase production, despite limitations at Holloman, was to augment ANG flying training units.

“Ultimately, the Department of Defense has a defense strategy that involves producing a certain number of qualified MQ-9 crews every year to meet mission demands,” said Brown. “The complexities of actually producing that number across the varying components, commands and bases with personnel and logistical limitations can be daunting.”

Brown said despite being an ANG base, both squadron aircrew members share the same duties that any formal training unit performs, including daily training flights in the local area and squadron administration.

“Syracuse offers some unique options not always available on active duty including joint civil operations at an international airport, periodic deployed operations at an Army airfield for armed MQ-9 weapons training and cross-state flights for training and exercises,” said Brown. “Syracuse is also a hotbed for Air National Guard flight testing for MQ-9 system upgrades.”

With this relationship consistently growing and developing, the team was able to not only meet, but surpasses their mandated training objectives.

“Happily, we’ve exceeded our initial training requirement,” said McPeak. “We are on track to also meet, and likely exceed, our current tasking. In addition to producing a certain quantity of MQ-9 aircrew, we’re also dedicated to enhancing the quality of instruction and process improvement.”

Brown also noted the cohesion among both units.

“The 491st ATKS leadership set the example immediately that their active duty members would integrate as seamlessly as possible into the flying training unit,” said Brown. “Obviously, it took a little time to get to know each other. But, considering the flying training unit nearly doubled in size over a few months as the 491st ATKS arrived, the cohesion and comradery has been remarkable.”

In addition to the bond built between both squadrons, members from both units have been able to increase their technical expertise, interpersonal skills and MQ-9 maintaining talents by working side-by-side in a wide array of training exercises.

“We’ve taken advantage of the many exercises and operations the Guard participates in, which in turn sharpens instructor and maintenance skills,” said McPeak “For example, most recently we’ve participated in Operation Northern Strike exercise – launch from Wheeler Sac Army Airfield at Ft Drum, transit across the great lakes to Lake Michigan and release hellfire missiles over the Alpina range – this included both instructors and students.”

Although the maintenance, training and repair of MQ-9s is crucial, McPeak said this feat would not be possible without the medical care and support from the ANG and active-duty medical professionals on site.

“Luckily, we have a member of the guard, Lt. Col. Rocky Auletto, who supports us through Military Personnel Appropriation,” said McPeak. “She and our active-duty medical technician, Tech. Sgt. Sarah McCabe, provide all the routine medical care and annual flight physicals. They’re absolutely critical for maintaining the health of our squadron.”

Additionally, telemed devices have been implemented, which allow members to also support members of March Air Reserve Base, California, which is the 491st ATKS’ “sister” squadron, as well as work in conjunction with the medical team at Holloman.

With the medical team supporting their physical resiliency, 491st and 108th ATKS members have the space and ability to focus on the task at hand -- tending to MQ-9s and catering to any challenges associated with that task.

With Brown being prior active duty, he noted how hard being an active-duty pilot can be due to the tough shift work, limited resources and limited basing options. Fortunately there’s a silver lining associated with this unique assignment in New York.

“There’s perhaps an adjustment for members and families to be so far apart from a traditional active-duty base,” said McPeak. “However, once they arrive, they see Syracuse is a great place to live and work. Fantastic seasonal weather and plenty to do both in and outdoors. The excellent primary and secondary schools are a highlight as well.”

Although the local area surrounding the base offers some favorable aspects, the most impactful aspect of this dynamic duo is the unit cohesion.

“We have a unique opportunity to educate each other on the differences, strengths and weaknesses of active duty versus the ANG, and to share the unique experiences and perspectives with each other,” said Brown. “Having active duty at Syracuse makes us a better unit, and we hope that when they leave to reintegrate into active-duty assignments, they’ve learned something valuable from us, too.”

McPeak also expressed his gratitude towards the 108th ATKS, the host unit.

“I hope to continue the grand partnership that was started even before our arrival in 2018,” he said. “I hope we’ll continue to bolster the quality of instruction together, provide highly trained MQ-9 aircrew and perhaps even see an increase in student production. It’s very gratifying to see that there’s a solid bond and relationship between active duty and the Guard, but taking a step back we know that we’re making meaningful contributions to support the defense of the republic.”