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.
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“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.”
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