Aircraft communications maintainers make RPA missions possible

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Either in a wire-entangled room laden with the sounds of humming computer drives, or a crowded air-conditioned ground control station that is dimly lit by the glow of computer screens, the Airmen of the 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron work hard attending to one of the many antennas strung throughout the base.

These Airmen are part of approximately 130 Air Force members at Creech Air Force Base who make the remotely piloted aircraft enterprise mission possible every day through their communication maintenance.

In a world where cockpits aren't in the plane, these traditional communications Airmen are put in a maintenance environment to link the ground control station, also known as the RPA cockpit, to the aircraft. This capability allows the pilot and sensor operator to control the plane, both locally and thousands of miles away, in an effort to provide the necessary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance so desperately needed by combatant commanders of the joint U.S. forces and its allies.

"Essentially we maintain all the communications equipment such as the antennas, ground data terminals, relays and links needed to fly an RPA," said Airman 1st Class Tyler Hosler, a RPA satellite communications technician. "We also troubleshoot communication issues if needed."

When an RPA flies, it's first controlled by the pilots via line-of-sight. Once the aircraft reaches a certain altitude the 432nd ACMS passes it to a satellite link allowing the air crew to fly in worldwide areas of responsibility 24/7. In addition to the aircrew and maintenance personnel, 432nd ACMS maintainers are required to synchronize all the moving parts so that the RPAs are able to fly.

While not unusual to see traditional cyber trained Airmen at other RPA locations maintaining ground control stations, the 432nd ACMS is the only unit in the Air Force where communications Airmen have stepped beyond their traditional Air Force specialty code responsibilities to fully maintain the entire communications network of the RPA enterprise.

"There is no other unit in the Air Force that does what we do," said Maj. Raymond Chester, the 432nd ACMS commander. "Not only do we maintain the GCSs here at Creech used for combat across the globe, we also maintain local (ground control stations) used in the formal training unit here to teach launch and recovery and train our operators."

This unique unit isn't just part of a seemingly ubiquitous mission; 432nd ACMS Airmen are paving the way to the future of RPA communications support while setting the foundation for the new era heritage every day.

"Our Airmen were previously assigned to the flying squadrons and then maintenance before the (432nd) ACMS stood up in 2011," said Master Sgt. William Quinn, the 432nd ACMS lead production superintendent.

In addition to being a special breed of Airmen, there is no official training school for cyber Airmen to prepare to do the RPA mission at Creech AFB.

"We're made up of radar frequencies and cyber transport Airmen, but because of what we do here, the training we received in school doesn't really apply at Creech," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Wellens, a RPA communications technician with the 432nd ACMS. "Everything we do is learned through on-the-job training which can be a difficult transition especially for those who have been to other bases."

The challenging feelings are shared by Airmen of all rank and skill levels.

"It's definitely a steep learning curve for everyone," said 1st Lt. Joyce Jackson, the 432nd ACMS systems maintenance unit officer in charge. "These Airmen are expected to still be able to do their normal jobs they learned in technical training when they move to another base."

In addition to the unique learning requirements Airmen describe the most difficult challenge 432nd ACMS maintainers face is keeping is adapting to a constantly evolving weapons system while combating low manning and a junior force.

"We're getting new modifications for the equipment almost every day and that can be a challenge for us to keep up but also for the follow-on training schoolhouse," Quinn said.

Constant modification changes coupled with being approximately 40 people short of the personnel needed to meet manning requirements according to an Air Force Manpower Study conducted in 2013, the 432nd ACMS members are always on the go.

"We're especially undermanned with noncommissioned officers," Chester said. "That makes it challenging when we need training tasks signed off because only an NCO can do it."

Manning issues have been influx since before the squadron existed.

"For a while the pilots and sensor operators were locked into Creech meaning they couldn't leave," Quinn said. "What most people don't know is that we were too. Now that the hold has been lifted we had a lot of people who changed duty stations, and most were replaced by brand new Airmen, so a lot of experience is gone."

Like other RPA career fields Airmen retention after their first enlistment has proven to be challenging.

"It can be hard trying to keep people here (Creech) because they can go down the road and get a job fairly easily and make more money," said Master Sgt. Timothy Serrano, the 432nd ACMS first sergeant.