ALPENA, Mich. – "This is like the Wright Brothers all over again!"
Shouts of celebration rang out July 18 along the flight line at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Michigan, as an MQ-9 "Reaper" from the 214th Attack Group, Arizona Air National Guard, lifts from the blistering asphalt and into the blue.
The flight – which marks the first time the remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper took off and landed in Michigan airspace – preempts the MQ-9's participation in Northern Strike 19, one of the Department of Defense's largest annual joint, reserve component readiness events. It is also the first time an MQ-9 Launch and Recovery Element has participated in a major National Guard-sponsored readiness exercise in the U.S.
"Having this MQ-9 on our ramp is a marquee event for us at Alpena this year," said Col. John Miner, commander, Alpena CRTC. "It is truly historic – a huge win to not only see the aircraft here tangibly, but to incorporate it into an exercise that's already very strong and make it better."
Getting the MQ-9 to Alpena for Northern Strike was the result of a frenetic, four-month effort, enabled by a long list of partnerships including nearly every MQ-9-affiliated unit in the Air National Guard and multiple external agencies. Along the way, myriad challenges had to be overcome, including the fact that the MQ-9, which boasts a 66-foot wingspan and weighs more than 4,900 lbs., had to be disassembled, crated, and shipped cross-country before its reassembly on the Alpena flight line.
"It started out in March at the quarterly exercise conference for MQ-9 units," said Maj. Luke Freudenburg, Wing Plans officer, 110th Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Michigan. "We knew Northern Strike would be the perfect place to test the deployability of an MQ-9 launch and recovery element, so I literally just started asking, 'can anyone do this?'"
That's when Maj. James Barnett, commander, 214th Maintenance Squadron, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, took notice.
"Maj. Barnett's head popped up from behind his computer. He said, 'I think we can do this – let me go make a phone call,'" Freudenberg said. "When he came back, he said, 'yep, we can do it,' and that's how this story began."
According to Freudenburg, finding the right unit to fill the launch and recovery role for the MQ-9's participation at Northern Strike was the easy part. What followed was a staggering behind-the-scenes effort involving skilled professionals in logistics, finance, planning, operations, and other specialties from eight Air National Guard Wings that would eventually play a role in the MQ-9's deployment. Up to the very last minute, there was uncertainty about whether the MQ-9 would actually get to Alpena in time for the exercise.
"This has been a joint effort between the Arizona Air National Guard, Michigan Air National Guard, Iowa Air National Guard, California Air National Guard, New York Air National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard, with great support from the Air National Guard Readiness Center," said Barnett. "A lot of logistical planning and a lot of hard work went into this; packing everything either onto trucks or a C-17 to get it here."
Even after it arrived at Alpena, the MQ-9's maiden flight was enabled only through interagency cooperation and partnerships. Accompanying the MQ-9 on its initial takeoff from Alpena CRTC was a Cessna 206 Stationair, operated by the Michigan Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. The CAP serves as the official, all-volunteer civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.
"The CAP is here to help track the MQ-9, keep eyes on it, and witness its location at all times," said Lt. Col. Mario Accardo, CAP exercise planner for Northern Strike 19. "We also help keep the MQ-9 out of the clouds, because the Federal Aviation Administration wants to ensure the MQ-9 flies in clear skies for traffic avoidance on the part of the MQ-9 and other aircraft in the area."
Accardo points out that the Civil Air Patrol has also supported MQ-9 operations in other parts of the country as a cost-effective solution that allows for operation of the MQ-9 in accordance with FAA regulations and the interests of public safety.
"We operate at approximately $160 an hour, we're volunteers, and we're so happy to do it," he said. "Northern Strike gives us a platform to demonstrate that the CAP is a very diverse, adaptable, and capable organization; we hope to continue providing quality, cost-effective services that are a great benefit to our Soldiers and Airmen."
Aside from the FAA's requirement that a chase aircraft accompany the MQ-9 through national airspace into restricted airspace – which is already set aside for military flight training, high speeds, and tight maneuvering – there is little else that distinguishes the MQ-9's functionality from a traditionally-piloted aircraft in terms of air traffic control and airspace management.
"Once the MQ-9 gets into the air, we treat it just like any other aircraft," said Senior Master Sgt. Tom Frutos, air traffic manager, Alpena CRTC. "It can do anything that any other aircraft can do, and we use the same standards for it that have been proven to work in other parts of the country."
Having the MQ-9 on-location at Northern Strike 19 adds a new layer of complexity to what is already one of the most sophisticated defense exercises in the U.S. This year, approximately 6,000 personnel representing more than 20 states and seven partner countries are taking part in the exercise's joint fires training environment, hosted annually by the Michigan National Guard at Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and Alpena CRTC. The area between the two bases comprises one of the premier military training locations in the U.S., with more than 147,000 acres available for land-based maneuvers, blanketed by the largest military training airspace east of the Mississippi River.
"The capability of having the MQ-9 here at Northern Strike is to provide close air support and Intelligence-Reconnaissance-Surveillance capabilities, along with Combat Search and Rescue event capabilities that are the very core of the exercise's integration between air and ground forces," Barnett said. "We've had MQ-9s in the training airspace here in years past, flying in from other locations, but sometimes the weather affected the success of those missions. To be able to bring that capability here locally, fly it right off the ramp, and get the aircraft to the ranges they need to get to will provide a lot of support to the other agencies here to make them more successful."
Although the MQ-9 has been in the U.S. Air Force inventory since 2007 – and has been utilized with great success as a close air support and ISR platform in combat – its capability is still being pioneered as an asset in domestic operations, including stateside natural disaster response. As a melting pot of agencies with diverse specialization, Northern Strike 19 offers a prime opportunity to test interoperability and relationships that could be used to implement and expand the MQ-9's employment in other life-protecting operations and partnerships, including work with the Department of Homeland Security.
"Alpena will be a useful location for other governmental organizations and military units in the future, because we have the ability and all of the agreements in place to launch and recover aircraft like the MQ-9," Frutos said. "The fact that Alpena sits underneath an incredible airspace complex makes this an ideal place to stage MQ-9 operations."
Miner agrees that the MQ-9's presence at Northern Strike 19 could ultimately make the difference between life and death by providing a training environment more realistic to what U.S. and coalition forces would encounter in a real-world combat scenario.
"This exercise is about synchronized and integrated training," he said. "The training our Airmen and Soldiers receive at Northern Strike saves lives and forges more effective warfighters in an environment that would not be possible any other way."