MQ‑9 ‘Reaper’ finds training home at Fort Drum

FORT DRUM, N.Y. — This fall, for the first time ever, the air­space above Fort Drum was graced with a 10,500-pound unmanned air­craft per­form­ing an essen­tial oper­a­tion. It was a piv­otal moment that would prove to mil­i­tary per­son­nel that the MQ‑9, com­mon­ly referred to as the “Reaper,” had estab­lished a home base for train­ing mis­sions at Wheel­er-Sack Army Airfield. 

The MQ‑9 “Reaper” can cruise air­borne at about 250 miles per hour and between 15,000 and 20,000 feet.
Click to enlarge

“The MQ‑9 is the lead­ing edge of what the Air Force has to offer today, in terms of recon­nais­sance, sur­veil­lance and in also deliv­er­ing kinet­ics on tar­get in the war fight,” explained Maj. Gen. Patrick Mur­phy, New York state’s adju­tant gen­er­al who com­mands all of the New York Air and Army Nation­al Guard. 

The MQ‑9, an unmanned aer­i­al sys­tem, is launched by a ground crew and flown to alti­tudes using a line-of-site radio sys­tem. The air­craft is then turned over to a flight crew, who oper­ate it via a satel­lite link. 

Mem­bers of the ground crew, who han­dle take-off and recov­ery in a cock­pit, reside here at Wheel­er-Sack Army Air­field. This cock­pit allows for instan­ta­neous con­trol, which is required for the take-off and land­ing por­tion of the mission. 

“The oppor­tu­ni­ty to fly in the air­space here is key to even hav­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty in upstate New York,” Mur­phy not­ed. “It’s a con­tin­ued rela­tion­ship that we sin­cere­ly appreciate.” 

Once the air­craft takes off, it enters the restrict­ed air­space in and around Fort Drum, explained Col. Kevin Bradley, com­man­der of the 174th Fight­er Wing. 

The cock­pit, which sits at the Syra­cuse Han­cock Inter­na­tion­al Air­port, is then con­nect­ed via satel­lite to the MQ‑9, allow­ing the pilot at Han­cock to fly the aircraft. 

“There is an inher­ent delay — around a sec­ond and a half — once the pilot makes the con­trol stick input for the air­craft to actu­al­ly move. That’s why we need the cock­pit here (at Fort Drum) to do the take-off and land­ing,” Bradley said. 

The plane, which cruis­es at about 250 miles per hour and between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, has the abil­i­ty to fly for about 15 hours with a full-motion video that can be streamed back to a tac­ti­cal oper­a­tions cen­ter or com­mand and con­trol cen­ter for first-response missions. 

It also is capa­ble of acquir­ing tar­gets and track­ing them for long peri­ods of time from high alti­tudes with its cam­era system. 

The MQ‑9 has flown over­seas since Novem­ber 2009, and now, thanks to the air­space around Fort Drum, it has the capa­bil­i­ty to fly domestically. 

“We have a very impor­tant mis­sion we’ve been assigned by the Air Force, and that is to train pilots and sen­sor oper­a­tors to fly the MQ‑9,” Bradley noted. 

The “soul of the air­plane,” or the sen­sor pod, has low-light (lev­el) tele­vi­sion capa­bil­i­ty, elec­tro optic and infrared, which has the abil­i­ty to take a pic­ture with full-motion video and turn that night­time scene into a mono­chro­mat­ic day­time scene. 

The pod has the abil­i­ty to guide laser weapons, allow­ing the air­craft to shine a flash­light — which can only be seen with night vision gog­gles — on the ground. 

On aver­age, the Air Force has been fly­ing the air­craft about three times per week at Fort Drum. 

“These are not demon­stra­tion flights. These are actu­al flights that are uti­lized for train­ing,” Bradley said, not­ing they are train­ing stu­dents how to employ the aircraft. 

Dur­ing flights, they will prac­tice the skills required for pilots and sen­sor oper­a­tors in combat. 

“The train­ing that can be accom­plished up here, in train­ing our pilots, is like none oth­er,” Mur­phy said. 

The Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion allows the MQ‑9 to be flown in the restrict­ed air­space at Fort Drum and restrict­ed air­space access over Lake Ontario, locat­ed west of Fort Drum. 

Once in the air­space, the air­craft can climb to above 18,000 feet and can fly in and around Fort Drum. They have been oper­at­ing about 30 to 50 miles from Fort Drum. 

“The fact that we have restrict­ed air­space col­lo­cat­ed to this mil­i­tary air­field is what allowed us to gain per­mis­sion from the FAA to get a license to be able to take off and land from this air­field,” Bradley said. 

Not only will the Air Force be able to train with live weapons in the impact area in and around Fort Drum, but they also can fly above 18,000 feet over Lake Ontario and per­form mar­itime and coastal train­ing operations. 

“We can’t be hap­pi­er to be here at Fort Drum and actu­al­ly have a chance to do our domes­tic fly­ing (and) to be able to train with the (mil­i­tary mem­bers who) are here,” Bradley said. 

He not­ed the high val­ue of the train­ing space, because they have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to train over land and water and dur­ing four seasons. 

“We’re not always going to fight in the desert. We need to learn how to employ and fly this air­plane in vary­ing weath­er con­di­tions. This is quite a lab­o­ra­to­ry that we’ve got here,” Bradley noted. 

“Fort Drum is very hap­py to con­tin­ue its part­ner­ship with the New York Nation­al Guard, as well as the 174th Fight­er Wing. This is a long-stand­ing rela­tion­ship. They are not new faces here to Wheel­er-Sack (Army Air­field), as well as down­range with our Sol­diers,” said Brig. Gen. Har­ry E. Miller, spe­cial assis­tant to the 10th Moun­tain Divi­sion (LI) com­mand­ing general. 

“It is one team, one fight when (the Sol­diers) go over to Iraq or Afghanistan,” Miller added. “So Sol­diers and air­men work­ing togeth­er seam­less­ly is what it takes to accom­plish the mission.” 

US Army 

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