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MQ-1, MQ-9 Millennials make difference on battlefield

Senior Airman Than, 42nd Attack Squadron MQ-9 sensor operator flies a simulated training mission Nov. 28, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The position of sensor operator is one of two jobs in the Air Force where enlisted Airmen can employ munitions from an aircraft, the other being aerial gunner. This gives young enlistees an opportunity to daily affect the battlefield by providing reconnaissance and persistent attack by guiding weapons to their targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

Senior Airman Than, a 42nd Attack Squadron MQ-9 sensor operator, flies a simulated training mission Nov. 28, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The position of sensor operator is one of two jobs in the Air Force where enlisted Airmen can employ munitions from an aircraft, the other being an aerial gunner. This gives young enlistees an opportunity to affect the battlefield by providing reconnaissance and persistent attack by guiding weapons to their targets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- After high school graduation, the world of an 18 year old is theirs for the taking. Often, they go to college and join the workforce, while others find themselves lost on the path of life unsure of what to do next.

For the one percent of the U.S. population that chooses the path to serve in the armed forces, there are many opportunities. One prospective path in the Air Force lies in the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft enterprise.

This enterprise is comprised of young men and women making strategic level impact every day on the battlefield by piloting the aircraft as an officer or operating the Multi-Spectral Targeting System as an enlisted sensor operator gathering information and lasing targets for weapons or ground forces.

These tasks directly support the combatant commander’s mission of providing persistent attack and reconnaissance on a global scale.

“The youngest age of Airmen flying in combat missions is about 20 years old, generally,” said Master Sgt. Jerald, the 42nd Attack Squadron operations superintendent. “We also have every disparity where these young [enlisted] Airmen can fly with two-star generals, wing and group commanders, which is unique.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in comparison, the average 18-24 year old in the workforce works in retail, food and leisure services. Meanwhile, young operators at this age make a difference globally by supporting the combatant commanders with reconnaissance and strike capabilities in various conflicts around the globe while also receiving military benefits such as steady pay, education opportunities and healthcare.

“I love what I do because it’s a fulfilling job knowing you made a difference today, saved lives and protected the country,” said Airman 1st Class Kyle, a 42nd ATKS MQ-9 sensor operator. “It’s rewarding to actually see your work in real time action and know you made a difference.”

Before joining, Kyle completed two years of college in hopes of becoming a pilot until he couldn’t afford classes anymore. At 20 years old he joined the Air Force with the intent to become a sensor operator, staying true to his desire to operate an aircraft.

While the training was extensive, from the time he joined to the time he began providing strike and reconnaissance capabilities wasn’t long.

According to Jerald, sensor operators attend Basic Sensor Operator Course, initial qualification training and mission qualification training course at the squadron and are qualified to fly by themselves within a year or two of joining.

“In college I had no idea I’d be making this much of a difference right out of the gate,” Kyle said. “It was fairly fast [employing my first weapon] and right after training it was helping the ground force commander do the mission and helping his guys.”

While not every operator will have the opportunity to conduct a weapons strike at the same point in their career, there are Airmen employing munitions soon after completing training.

“It was within my first month that I employed my first weapon,” Kyle said. “My squadron prepared me well and let me know that it could happen any time. Nothing can prepare you for employing. The training helps, but the moment you employ is all you at that point.”

Like Kyle, 1st Lt. Gregg, a 42nd ATKS MQ-9 pilot, weapons engagement was also very early in his career.

“I started undergraduate pilot training in July 2014, and my first combat sortie was July 1, 2016,” Gregg said. “I employed weapons the first time on July 4, 2016. By the end of the sortie the aircraft was ‘winchestered’ (out of weapons) and I ended up using four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.”

Due to physical and qualification differences between traditional airframes and RPAs, pilot training time is reduced from two to three years to about 10 -12 months, allowing MQ-1, MQ-9 aircrews to affect the battlefield sooner.

At Creech AFB, MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews are deployed daily, conducting flights from stateside locations and flying approximately 800-1000 combat hours a year in the areas of responsibility directly supporting ground forces. This is about two to three times as many hours as pilots in other airframes.

“This community is constantly in demand with our supporting units and combatant commanders and is continually evolving to meet new and innovative challenges,” Gregg said. “The squadron, and even myself, have made a direct impact on countless intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and close air support missions ranging from target development to friendly force over watch and even danger close support for friendly forces under fire.”

Kyle added he’s extremely humbled he’s able to affect the battlefield on such a massive scale.

“What we do on a daily basis as sensor operators and pilots affect the world and I’m quite proud to affect the battlespace,” he said.

That feeling is shared at all levels of the MQ-1 and MQ-9 community.

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