California Air National Guard embraces new mission |
by Staff Sgt. D. Clare
163rd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
8/16/2006 - MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- The sun heats a Nevada desert landscape as a small group of warriors focus on computer terminals. These men and women know their actions directly support others facing the heat of another desert half a world away.
Members of the California Air National Guard's 163rd Air Refueling Wing have spent the last several months training in one of the Air Force's most prominent emerging mission areas: unmanned aerial vehicles. The 163rd ARW, which until recently flew the KC-135 Stratotanker from here, is now one of the Air National Guard's newest Predator units, an emerging mission within the total force.
The "Grizzlies" sent an initial cadre of MQ-1 Predator crews to train at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., in January. The six crews, composed of one pilot and one sensor operator each, graduated in April and have been supporting the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., while facilities for the new mission are being completed at March ARB. Another class of seven crews graduated July 28.
Senior Master Sgt. Jim Blucher was a boom operator on the KC-135 and is now working as a sensor operator with the Predator.
"There are times when there's non-stop action. You're following vehicles, motorcycles, people, there are troops in contact (with the enemy) and you feel like you're right there helping them out," he said. "It's 24-hour operations, 365 days a year and most of us work odd hours. You get in the mindset that you're in the (combat) theater. When you walk out, you realize you're on Nellis time and it might be the middle of the night."
The Predator MQ-1, a remotely piloted aircraft, has proven highly valuable to the nation's execution of the war on terrorism. It is not just an aircraft; it is part of an entire weapons system. A fully operational system consists of four aircraft (with sensors), a ground control station, a primary Predator satellite link and approximately 55 people for deployed 24-hour operations.
"This is the future," said Col. Al Aimar, the 163rd ARW commander, as he unveiled the capabilities of the MQ-1 Predator in March. It was at that unveiling that the "Grizzlies" had a chance to see a static display of the Predator for the first time since the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission transferred the wing's refueling mission and aircraft to another Guard unit.
"We joined the military because we want to make a difference, and we did that in the (KC-) 135. We flew it all over the world doing the mission the Air Force wanted us to do," Colonel Aimar said.
"We're going to have the opportunity to continue to make a difference. We're going to be on the forefront of one of the most important missions in the Air Force today, and our leaders couldn't have picked a better organization or group of people for this critical task," he said.
The colonel told the members about an event that occurred on Sept. 11, 2005, near Mosul, Iraq. Early in the morning, a Predator engaged an insurgent vehicle loaded with weapons. When the vehicle was struck by a Hellfire missile, the explosion was so great it leveled a nearby building.
"It was determined that the Predator hit a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. That vehicle could have hit one of our convoys and could have been devastating. We know this vehicle (the Predator) saves lives. It's in huge demand with our combatant commanders. Our task is to get up to speed on this new mission as quickly as possible so we can start making a difference," Colonel Aimar said.
To demonstrate the demand for unmanned aerial vehicles, Colonel Aimar highlighted the accomplishments of the 15th RS from July 2005 to June: the squadron participated in more than 242 separate raids; engaged 132 troops in contact-force protection actions; fired 59 Hellfire missiles; surveyed 18,490 targets; escorted four convoys; and flew 2,073 sorties for more than 33,833 flying hours.
Already, the wing is anticipating what a new manning document might hold and preparing personnel for realignment.
"There's a lot going on, but Airmen remain our priority," Colonel Aimar said. "When BRAC came along, it looked like so many positions were going away. I lost sleep trying to figure out what to do. We quit hiring and dropped over 100 (military) positions in case we lost them. No one has to worry about not having a job now. If you want to be a part of this new mission, we're going to find you a job, and that's the way it is."
The wing's major concern, the commander said, is bringing affected personnel up to speed on the mission as quickly as possible. Since the wing is the first unit in the Air National Guard to receive the Predator, and because the Predator is a relatively new asset, wing training members are challenged in scheduling and arranging training.
The first class of intelligence troops have already graduated from Nellis AFB with several more classes planned. More intelligence specialists will be required to fulfill the new mission.
"This is a very dynamic career field," said Senior Master Sgt. Heather Nester, wing training supervisor. "We're evolving our training plans as the situation evolves. Because we're trying to stand up the mission so fast, we're sending new pilots through the full pilot track."
"We're in the lead," she said. "We're showing our flexibility and sending people off for training with little or no notice. People are calling us already and asking us what we're doing. The feedback we get is that we're exceeding expectations."
Wing pilots are required to attend a two-week joint firepower course at Nellis AFB before attending the 98-day Predator basic course at Creech AFB. Once they finish the basic course, they return to Nellis for 60 to 90 "seasoning days" where they complete actual missions under observation. Crews are made up of two types of pilots, one who handles takeoffs and landings and the other who flies the Predator during missions.
Pilot candidates are currently being sent through the Academy of Military Science and Undergraduate Pilot Training. Whether future Predator pilots will attend full undergraduate pilot training remains to be seen. According to Sergeant Nester, nearly every current Air Force Predator pilot was laterally moved to unmanned aerial vehicles from traditional aircraft.
Intensive construction will be required to modify 163rd ARW facilities for the new mission. Work has been under way since April, and full transition of operational capability is expected by October.
Colonel Aimar said the timing of the BRAC decision in relation to the state's gain of the Predator mission could not have happened to a better team.
"If you have a tough task -- a job that needs to get accomplished -- who are you going to give that job to? You're going to give it to your star performer," he said.
"People are going to be looking at us, the first Guard unit to stand up a Predator mission," Colonel Aimar said. "We're going to show the nation why we've received so many honors and awards. We're going to take our same way of doing business and do the job the best way we can."
(Additional reporting by Capt. Michaela Eggers, Air Force Directorate of Total Force Integration Advocacy)