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NEWS | Dec. 8, 2006

Air Guard launches new era with Predator mission

By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith National Guard Bureau

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. - After years of preparation and months of training, the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing in late November became the first Guard unit to operate aircraft that are flown from the ground, not in a cockpit. They are MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs.

Predators are long endurance, medium altitude, unmanned aircraft used for surveillance and reconnaissance. Since they were first flown in 1995, UAVs have been used in combat operations in the Balkans, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.

Airmen and distinguished visitors gathered to celebrate the wing's new Predator designation during a ribbon-cutting ceremony the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.

Officials said the wing will train operators and maintainers on the Predator system while conducting overseas missions from California to support the Global War on Terrorism.

"What the Guard brings today is a gift to the active Air Force, a chance to reduce [personnel] tempo, and to allow the Air National Guard to maximize Citizen-Airmen’s experience and expertise to meet the combatant commanders' demands," said Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley, director of the Air National Guard. "California has certainly done that with great professionalism.

"The 'California conversion' has been typified by optimism, enthusiasm and excitement for this vital mission,” he added. “That's what makes California uniquely qualified to be the lead National Guard unit in this most pivotal role."

California is one of five states where Air Guard units will operate the unmanned aerial vehicles, McKinley has explained. The other states will be Arizona, New York, North Dakota and Texas.

New roles, challenges

California Air Guard officials think that fighting wildfires would be a potential use for the Predator. "The Predator could provide valuable information to firefighters to put those fires out," Aimar said. "We only have a federal mission, currently."

He also said that communities should be assured that the Guard has no plans to use the Predator for law enforcement or to spy on the public.

California Air National Guard officials said they have pursued UAVs since their inception. The effort may have saved them. The most recent Base Realignment and Closure Act took away the mission of one of their oldest air wings – the 163rd Air Refueling Wing.

Now the wing has transitioned from flying aerial refueling missions in KC-135 Stratotankers to operating unmanned Predators.

"We really didn't know what the future of this wing would be," said Col. Albert Aimar, wing commander. The wing got the news about its new UAV mission in December 2005, and the first Airmen began training last January, he said.

"We had fairly short notice about when we were going to attend training for the pilots, sensor operators and mission coordinators," Aimar said.

Many Airmen are still training at Nellis and Creech Air Force bases in Nevada. They will also be the first Guardsmen to train others on the Predator system when the wing stands up its training operation over the next two years.

"It's a huge conversion, a major change," said Aimar who acknowledged that it led to some significant challenges in retention because a lot of the wing’s Airmen retired or found work elsewhere

“The folks that did stay on are doing fantastic," Aimar said.

Airman in transition

One of them is Master Sgt. Mike Loyola who is now a Predator crew chief after completing three months of maintenance training at Creech AFB.

"We did loose a lot of good people in the transition; crew chiefs who went to the Reserves or got out," Loyola said. "I was looking forward to working with [them]. That's the only bad thing – losing people. But we have new people coming in the door every day."

As a crew chief, Loyola will be responsible for the lion’s share of the maintenance needs for the Predator, as he has for the KC-135s. "We do the assembly and the disassembly. That's what a crew chief does, take care of his whole aircraft," Loyola said.

Loyola also pointed out that you can pack up a Predator and fly with it, not in it. "That's the difference," he said.

Loyola is no stranger to transitions. He has been with the 163rd since 1985 and was a crew chief for F-4 Phantoms. He retrained when the wing switched to tankers.

"I can see what the future is going to bring. The tankers are phasing out, and these [aircraft] are taking their places," Loyola said.

Training to train

"The Predator is an exciting new mission that has a future," said Senior Master Sgt. John Clayton, a full-time federal technician with 20 years of specialization in computer systems and radios. "I'm excited to be a part of it."

Clayton transferred from the 222nd Combat Communications Squadron, where he was a maintenance superintendent, to the 163rd.

When the wing's schoolhouse is running, he will instruct Airmen on the Predator's mobile ground communications system that commands a Predator to land and take off. It's called a Containerized Dual Control Segment.

Aimar said the schoolhouse plan is to train Guard, active duty and Reserve personnel for a total force operation within the next two years. It is also hoped that the training will relieve the Air Force's current training burden.

Training operations will more than likely occur at the nearby Southern California Logistics Airport, it was explained.



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