HANCOCK FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. – The Airmen of the 138th Attack Squadron, part of the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing, hit the milestone of 60,000 hours flying unmanned MQ-9 Reapers in combat at the end of November.
That 60,000-hour figure isn’t like the odometer turning over in a car, explained Air National Guard Maj. Elliot Sanders, the assistant director for operations for the squadron. It represents a lot of time and effort by many Airmen.
“Each of those hours requires a team of 10 or so people – pilots, sensor operators and intelligence coordinators – actively engaged in close air support or reconnaissance overwatch,” he said. “In other words, those hours are spent supporting the warfighter on the ground.”
Lt. Col. Nathaniel Johnson, 138th Attack Squadron commander, called the achievement “a really significant milestone. It’s literally 2,500 days of keeping an aircraft in the air, watching our enemies, protecting our allies, and keeping America safe.”
That is the equivalent of 20,000 or 30,000 sorties conducted by conventional manned fighters, he added.
The MQ-9 Reaper is what the Air Force calls a remotely piloted aircraft. The 36-foot-long aircraft, with a 66-foot wingspan, is controlled via satellite link by a pilot and sensor operator at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base.
The flying hours also represent the work of maintenance personnel at air bases around the world who provide ground support for the aircraft controlled remotely by the U.S.-based aircrews, Sanders explained.
The MQ-9 can find enemy forces or individuals, track them on the ground, and attack if required, using a Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which includes an infrared sensor, TV cameras that can track objects miles away, and a laser rangefinder and target designator. The aircraft is armed with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs to strike targets on the ground.
In fiscal year 2020, the Air Force maintained 70 MQ-9 combat air patrols over American and allied forces operating throughout the world. National Guard attack wings like the 174th Attack Wing and the New York Air National Guard’s 107th Attack Wing, based in Niagara Falls, flew 20 percent of those missions, according to the National Guard Bureau.
The Air Force strives to maintain 60 MQ-9 aircraft overwatching American forces around the world.
The 138th Attack Squadron traces its history to 1947 when it was organized as a fighter squadron flying World War II-era F-47D fighters and charged with defending northern and central New York from attack. In 1950, the unit switched to jet fighters and continued to upgrade to new aircraft.
The wing flew combat missions during Operation Desert Storm, and in 2001, F-16’s from the 174th were some of the first fighter jets scrambled after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
In 2008, the decision was made to transition the 174th Fighter Wing from F-16s to the MQ-9. In 2010, the F-16s were retired and the wing and the 138th Attack Squadron switched to flying the MQ-9.
“We were the first Guard unit to fly Reapers,” said Johnson. “We’re still doing it to protect our families from terrorist threats that train in ungoverned parts of the world.”
“I have an immense sense of gratitude to all the Air National Guard men and women and the civilians and contractors of the 174th Attack Wing that enable us to continue doing our part," Johnson said.