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NEWS | June 28, 2023

Tennessee Air Guard Remotely Pilots MQ-9 From California

By Tech. Sgt. Anthony Agosti, 118th Wing, Public Affairs, Tennessee Air National Guard

SMYRNA Tenn. - The Tennessee Air National Guard’s 118th Wing remotely flew an MQ-9 from California to Tennessee June 7 without ground crews and support facilities usually deployed for line-of-sight taxiing, takeoff and landing.

As part of exercise Whiskey Fury, designed around the Air Force’s new Agile Combat Employment model, members from the 118th Operations Group piloted the MQ-9 to a successful takeoff and landing. Additional training flights are planned to Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee, and Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, with the Civil Air Patrol trailing the airplane per Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Key to the success of this exercise is a state-of-the-art technology called Satellite Launch and Recovery (SLR), which fundamentally changes how MQ-9s are flown and supported.

“What SLR does is take forward-deployed crews out of the equation,” said Lt. Col. John Woods, assistant director of operations, 118th Operations Support Squadron. 

The new technology significantly reduces the need for equipment and support.

“The airplane is still being flown through the satellite, but based on an auto takeoff and landing profile we’ve built into it that basically allows the aircraft to go and land on its own,” Woods said. “It knows exactly where it is and where the runway is.” 

Woods emphasized the pilot is always in command and can take over at any time.

With the first objective of the exercise met — flying an MQ-9 from California to Tennessee without using forward-deployed crews — a second goal is training. 

“For the past 10 years, we haven’t had the ability to do local training here, so that is a huge benefit,” said Woods.

Training includes taking off from Smyrna daily to fly to Fort Campbell and Arnold AFB to practice takeoffs and landings. 

“Initially, we’ll be working with our Army partners to work on close air support, convoy overwatch, and other federal missions,” he said. “We’re also going to do tests and evaluations on how to refuel the MQ-9 and set up a forward arming and refueling point.”

The visual of an MQ-9 flying in U.S. civilian airspace could be alarming to some not familiar with its domestic operations capabilities, but Woods explained the MQ-9 integrates exceptionally well into this role, providing instant assessment and awareness to commanders, governors, and federal leadership during natural disasters, for example.

“It’s such a good platform for cameras, sensors and could become an airborne cell tower if there’s a natural disaster,” said Woods. “It can stay airborne for over 24 hours, and the payload that we can carry to support Tennesseans – and anyone affected nationally – is huge.”

Woods, who piloted the MQ-9 from California to Tennessee, recognized the many support layers to make this exercise successful.

“To be the first to land it [MQ-9] here in Tennessee was a phenomenal experience, and I’m completely humbled and honored, but I did not do that alone,” he said. “The fact that the MQ-9 touched down the first time as smoothly as it did is a credit to everybody in the operations group as well as the wing. Our targeting group came up with the coordinates. Our mission support group got the equipment from California. Security forces is guarding the airplane.”

He added that the 163rd Attack Wing, March Air Reserve Base, California, provided the aircraft and maintenance personnel as part of the exercise. 

Col. Ted Geasley, 118th Wing commander, was present during the June 7 MQ-9 landing in Smyrna. He credited the California Air National Guard with laying the foundation for this successful exercise.

“They’ve been using this [MQ-9] in a domestic response capability for the California wildfires for quite a while, he said. “The rest of us are taking the lessons they learned, and now we want to apply them.” 



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