From Predators to Reapers

Reaper 163The sun has set on the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing’s MQ-1 Predator mission. The final mission of the California Air National Guard unit’s Predator aircraft ended at 1528 Zulu time on April 1 after eight years, 230 days, nine hours and 30 minutes of consecutive flights without a break supporting warfighters overseas.

These Air National Guard remotely piloted warriors from the 163rd RW were operational daily on combat air patrol safely flying for 3,150 days, consistently creating a series of monumental firsts. But, as of April 1, all MQ-1 Predator operations have ceased. The Predator’s replacement, the MQ-9 Reaper, has taken over and started a new era at the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing.

“The Grizzlys have safely accomplished the MQ-1 remotely piloted aircraft mission and it couldn’t have been done without their dedication and professionalism,” said Col. Dana Hessheimer, commander of the 163rd. “It is the Grizzlys’ intestinal fortitude that allowed the mission to occur on a daily basis supporting the warfighter on the ground to the on-scene commanders in the National Guard’s civil support role.

The 163rd Grizzly Airmen flew 5,509 sorties in support of operational missions, logging 102,245 hours. During their many hours on duty over the last nine years, they provided armed overwatch of friendly forces, prepared areas of responsibility (AORs) overseas, helped infiltrate and exfiltrate troops and scanned roads for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Predators provided protective cover for our service members while overseas as their eye in the sky.

The wing flew 1,070 sorties totaling 6,240.5 hours in support of training. Along with the daily missions overseas, these Airmen supported civil authorities during fires and floods stateside, conducted search and rescue exercises and simultaneously supported their flying training unit (FTU) school house.

“Our 163rd Airmen have a can-do attitude and no-task-is-too-tough mindset,” said Hessheimer.

The 163rd Grizzlys began their journey into the RPA mission in August of 2006. This was a first for the Air National Guard (ANG). And the 163rd RW did not stop there. It also became home to the first field training detachment (FTD) and formal training unit (FTU) in the Air National Guard. In January 2009, the wing’s FTD was the first in the Air National Guard to train maintenance Airmen. Then again in March 2009, it set the standard by being the first ANG RPA training unit to train pilots and sensor operators for the MQ-1 remotely piloted aircraft mission. The 163rd RW entered the training business for the whole Air Force when they opened their doors to pilots, sensor operators, and maintainers on the MQ-1 RPA.

The 163rd RW continued to make history in February 2009 with the first ANG RPA flight in national air space.

In August 2013, the 163rd RW led the way in emergency disaster relief efforts by supporting civil authorities during the third largest fire in California’s history, the Rim Fire, which threatened Yosemite National Park. The 163rd made history when it was the first RPA unit to provide real-time full motion video to the CAL FIRE incident commander on scene at the Rim Fire. They flew the first, sustained use of a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in wild land firefighting efforts in the continental U.S. helping to provide commanders on the ground make more informed decisions to help save property, infrastructure and most importantly lives. This ability to provide real-time video footage to support agencies battling wildfires soon grabbed the attention of those in the business of emergency disaster relief efforts.

“The use of the RPA provided an opportunity to look at and evaluate the value of real time imagery and data for sustained periods over a large and complex wildland fire,” stated Chief Ken Pimlott, director of CAL FIRE.

“We do not have to land for crew fatigue and refueling,” said Hessheimer. “We provide with persistence which is more beneficial than a manned aircraft. We are not limited by the crew swaps.”

The wing hopes to fly more in support of rescue missions, Hessheimer said. “We are trained to find people and vehicles. We are proven overseas and our skills could be utilized to find lost hikers, and you name it, to protect our citizens state side.”

The Airmen of the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing continue to lead the way as they received the MQ-9 Reaper mission in July 2014.

“We are the most experienced wing in the world flying remotely piloted aircraft,” said Hessheimer. “Our pilots are still here today flying daily since 2006 with a consistent and safe record of operations. Our pilots fly combat air patrol missions and have both training and operational experience with over 6,500 sorties.”

Hessheimer said the 163rd pilots can be conducting overwatch in the morning and by the afternoon bring lessons learned to the students in the formal training unit. Real experience is produced at the 163d Reconnaissance Wing with the benefit of teaching someone the next day, he added.

The business of search and rescue has been accomplished much up to this point by aircraft manned by a pilot in the air, he explained. The benefit of a remotely piloted aircraft comes when the plane does not have to land for crew rest or refueling, allowing for more hours in the air and on the mission while keeping people out of harm’s way.

“You can accomplish the mission of saving lives and then go to your 9-year-old’s soccer game,” Hessheimer said.”

Hessheimer was the pilot who ended the MQ-1 era by flying the last sortie on April 1. “It was very gratifying to see it through start to finish,” he said.

He was the conversion officer when the wing pioneered the MQ-1 RPA for the Air National Guard and is now the wing commander in charge as the 163rd seizes the future.

The 163rd RW is the first remotely piloted aircraft unit to distribute video, providing access feeds to First Air Force and NORTHCOM for National Guard civil support missions during emergencies. The approval and mission orders for these missions come directly from the Secretary of Defense. Due to legal protections, there are strict requirements on these missions for what can be looked at, what can be done with the video and when it needs to be destroyed.

In emergency response operations 163rd is tasked through NORTHCOM, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center or the Joint Rescue Coordination Center.

“Our most valuable asset is our people,” Hessheimer said. “With their valuable skills and dedication, we are able to assist in domestic relief efforts and provide global mission capabilities and support for troops on the ground in harm’s way.”

Next on the horizon for these Airmen of the future is a move to a new base. The wing will move its operational flight from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside in order to better support training units and disaster response missions.

Source: Air National Guard

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