Exercise becomes reality: MQ-9A Reaper responds to ship fire

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ariel O’Shea
  • 432nd Wing Public Affairs

An MQ-9A Reaper remotely piloted aircraft was recently on hand to respond to the scene of a fire involving a Combined Task Forces ship as a surface exercise quickly developed into a real-world emergency at Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, 2022.

The MQ-9 crew, assigned to the 492nd Attack Squadron from March Air Reserve Base, California, was conducting their scheduled air tasking missions for the day when they received a distress call from a ship 50 to 60 miles away from where they flew.

“By about 40-50 miles out, we could kind of see where the ship was,” said Capt. Jonathan Overy, the pilot and an MQ-9 formal training unit instructor. “We were using our infrared camera, which makes any heat signatures stick out, especially on the water and with the ship. You could really see that the hull below the deck was a lot hotter and a lot brighter than everything else.”

Overy and sensor operator, Staff Sgt. Ryan Schultz, immediately requested permission to transit to the airspace above the vessel to provide aerial assistance. Once it was approved by the combined forces air component commander to switch their focus from training to responding, they, and the combined RIMPAC support forces, departed for the site.

The MQ-9A, one of the first aircraft to arrive, was instrumental in providing situational awareness for all rescue efforts. At the beginning, it was unknown whether the ship was stable enough to bear the weight of a helicopter. Gathering this information was critical, as two people needed to be evacuated from the vessel.

“We were able to say, ‘Okay, this is what we are seeing on the camera,’ and then we pushed our feed out to the entire air operations floor to include exercise control over at the Pacific Warfighting Center,” said Air National Guard Capt. Phillip West, the RIMPAC MQ-9 Maritime Force Integration lead. “The combined forces maritime component commander was also able to get a visual from there. Now that everyone's on the same page, they see the real-time situation and everyone's able to react appropriately.”

Overy and Schultz were able to identify the inability to land a helicopter on the vessel and relayed that intelligence to rescue teams. Because of the data they provided, the two people aboard were safely hoisted out, and then rushed to a hospital on Oahu. They were last reported to be in “critically stable condition,” per a statement.

This particular RPA is assigned to March ARB – no stranger to performing search and rescue efforts during a fire. With the threat of wildfires often looming over the state, personnel train extensively in flying through hazardous conditions and providing high-quality footage of an affected area. In 2020, the MQ-9A was used to aid the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection while deadly wildfires burned.

“We’re able to kind of loiter in one area,” Overy said. “The aircraft is slower than most, so that means that we can stay places longer. We have the gas set to hang out for hours and hours overhead. With the camera that we have on the aircraft, we can get really high-fidelity images and provide a lot of situational awareness. We trained in personnel recovery and search and rescue a lot at March [ARB], so we were pretty well suited for helping out in this situation.”

Since the MQ-9 is not designed to extinguish a fire, communication with other agencies is crucial. From making sure it’s understood that what is transpiring is not a drill, to identifying the fire’s origin and providing rescue teams with the most accurate information, the RPA is part of a large team effort.

Thirty to 40 minutes after the two aboard the ship were airlifted, the fire was extinguished and the situation was reported as clear. The MQ-9 stood by and waited for the airspace to deconflict, and then departed. The unexpected incident was resolved and will always serve as an important lesson as to what RIMPAC is about.

RIMPAC is the world’s largest international maritime exercise and provides a unique training opportunity while fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships among participants, critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. The U.S., its partner nations and allies are able to prepare for contingencies before they happen. This event could not have occurred in an environment more prepared for it.

“We're practicing personnel recovery, Man Overboard and search and rescue,” West said. “In that mission, we were able to execute in real-time. Because we're all being capable, adaptive partners at RIMPAC, we were able to be flexible, adapt to a real situation and execute something that we're also practicing. It's really nice to see the entire RIMPAC community work together on that.”

Along with a visual demonstration of the benefit of working together with combined RIMPAC forces, they were able to see the fruits of their labor after countless hours of training, and the satisfaction that comes with it.

“It was nice to be part of a real effort,” Overy said. “We train a lot. We're always instructing students how to do this stuff, but I think for myself and my sensor operator, this is the first time we ever had any real-world experience with that. It’s pretty rewarding to be a part of.”