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Reserve, Active Duty Team Up for First MQ-9 Dirt Landing

  • Published
  • By 919th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs Staff

Just south of Fort Stockton, Texas, sits one of the largest private armed forces training centers in the country. The Nine Mile Training Center is an expansive terrain offering privacy from prying eyes … and it’s the perfect place to put the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft through its paces.

At this remote dirt strip in West Texas, Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 919th Special Operations Wing, Duke Field, Florida, and active-duty Airmen from the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, teamed up to conduct the first-ever MQ-9 landing on a dirt landing zone.

“This is a significant achievement for Air Force Reserve Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, the MQ-9 community and the joint force as a whole,” said Lt. Col. Brian Flanigan, director of operations for the 919th SOW’s 2nd Special Operations Squadron. “This team of aircrew, maintainers and special tactics Airmen have proven the Reaper can operate anywhere in the world and is no longer beholden to the leash of perfectly paved runways or line-of-sight antennas traditionally used to take off and land the aircraft.”

Historically, the Reaper has taken off and landed via line-of-sight antennas, with aircrew members manually flying the aircraft. Now, the MQ-9 can literally take off and land from anywhere in the world.

Flanigan was quick to point out how this new concept meets Air Force Reserve Command’s priorities of Ready Now! and Transforming for the Future.

“This capability will be critical in tomorrow’s fight and nests perfectly with the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept that focuses on smaller footprints, distributed operations and increased survivability while generating combat power,” he said. “We are demonstrating what is possible when you leverage Citizen Air Commandos and our diverse backgrounds to take an existing capability like satellite launch and recovery and apply it to the future fight.”

The 12th Aircraft Maintenance Unit from the 727th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Cannon supported this effort with a very small footprint to the austere location.

“This initiative was significant in terms of refining maintenance ACE capabilities because it provided insight into how the aircraft handles landing in an austere environment,” said Maj. Doniell Mojazza, 727th SOAMXS director of operations. “This scenario both challenged and empowered 12th AMU maintainers to assess risk utilizing their expertise and innovation to ensure aircraft air worthiness and mission success.”

The team is not only using the MQ-9 satellite launch and recovery capability to access short, narrow and unprepared places, but also using it in creative ways to offer off-the-menu options not traditionally provided by remotely piloted aircraft. This was demonstrated by their use of a travel pod attached to the aircraft to execute a critical resupply of the 26th STS on the dirt landing zone.

“We call it Reaper Express, which is essentially just using a travel pod to develop an operational concept of delivering critical items to austere locations using the MQ-9,” Flanigan said. “It may not be able to carry much, but what it can hold might be the difference between getting that critical aircraft part to an isolated airfield or bringing in a blood supply for casualties sustained during a base attack.”

While the MQ-9 has no demand shortage with its traditional role in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, its ability to quickly land and execute an engine running offload could be a secondary or tertiary mission.

“This provides options compared to waiting multiple weeks until intra-theater airlift can support,” Flanigan said. “What we’re also finding through the series of exercises we’ve executed is that the ‘fight tomorrow’ capabilities we’ve been demonstrating is rapidly becoming a ‘fight tonight’ capability the joint force is wanting now.”

The collective contributions of active-duty and Reserve members working together provided a glimpse of what is possible as transformation continues throughout the remotely piloted aircraft enterprise.

“We are continuing to expand MQ-9 Reaper capabilities,” said Maj. Dan Darlson, 2nd SOS MQ-9 chief pilot. “The unique ability to maneuver the MQ-9 to operate any time, any place is a relatively new capability and one that is transforming how we prepare for tomorrow’s fight as well as today’s.”

The certification exercise also provided a venue for intelligence analysts to contribute and further enhance the Special Tactics Squadron mission regardless of where they operate.

“We are innovating ways to provide geospatial intelligence to down-range forces,” said Capt. Courtney Cook. 311th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron assistant director of operations. “The opportunity to support this was huge for our organization.”