LAS VEGAS — The aircraft parking ramps at a deployed location roared to life the morning of Oct. 22. Checklist were run, hatches checked, and missions briefed as the crew chiefs, support units and air crew carefully prepared an MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft for flight, just as they would on any other morning.
Except this was not any other morning. On this morning, the MQ-1 and the Airmen preparing it for flight were preparing to make history by surpassing 2 million flight hours.
During 16 years of service the Predator and its successor, the MQ-9 Reaper, have played an important support role in Operations Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, as well as in humanitarian aid missions. Yet none of the operational support would have been possible were it not for maintenance Airmen keeping the aircraft, ground control stations, satellites and other components operational.
“This is an Air Force success story,” said Col. James Cluff, 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander. “This is, as the chief of staff says, ‘Air Power, get you some.’ We have flown the preponderance of the 2 million hours, but in no way does that diminish the team effort it takes to make this mission happen. It starts with training, continues with maintenance, and it goes into preparing to fly, then actually flying.”
The hard work and dedication of maintenance crews are essential to mission success for hundreds of active-duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Airmen, as well as joint and coalition partners involved in everyday RPA operations.
“Our maintainers are vital; they’re the critical backbones to making these RPAs work,” said Maj. Joshua, 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron operations officer. “A lot of our maintainers come from F-16 Fighting Falcons or prior legacy platforms, and now they’re part of this cutting edge of technology to bring this capability to the warfighter.”
The men and women of the 432nd AMXS are a mix of active duty Airmen, reservists and guardsmen, who provide aircraft and equipment maintenance in support of worldwide expeditionary operations, formal training, and for operational test and evaluations.
For the Predator and Reaper maintainers, keeping their aircraft operational means more than just having routine maintenance completed; they must also have a reliable communication network to ensure intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data is available.
This is where the Air Force’s one-of-a-kind 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron steps in. Airmen from both cyber-operations and cyber-support must be involved and work together to ensure the aircraft and ground control centers stay linked.
The 432nd ACMS provides 24/7, 365-day maintenance support to the communication infrastructure that supports the wing’s global RPA operations. In this squadron, Airmen monitor the operational readiness of the RPA command and control network infrastructure and provide maintenance for 22 GCSs and 21 satellite communication terminals.
Capt. Zalika, 432nd ACMS operations officer, said what makes the squadron truly unique is the way the two different traditional missions of maintenance and communications partner together for a unified purpose.
“When we generate a line, it’s important that we synchronize efforts because any action on our part can affect aircraft maintenance and generation or vice versa,” she said. “For example, the aircraft cannot take off if a GCS is not ready with the appropriate software to match the aircraft. Similarly, we can’t confirm command and control connectivity for a GCS without an aircraft to link to. For these reasons, we work very closely with AMXS with regard to scheduling, troubleshooting, and daily operations.”
Airman 1st Class Jenner, 432nd ACMS maintainer, and Staff Sgt. Joshua, a full-time Nevada guardsman and 432nd ACMS maintainer, were chosen to perform pre-flight inspections on the GCS that supported the 2 millionth hour flight. Both men feel humbled knowing their actions keep men and women on the ground safe and ensure continued global operations.
“It’s important that we do our job every day to the best of our ability, because if we don’t then we could lose the chance to take out a target or miss out on important information that could help save lives,” Jenner said. “It’s rewarding knowing my actions can keep people safe down range or prevent further harm to our country or our partners. I’m responsible for supporting the RPA community and its area of responsibility.”
In addition to the 432nd AMXS and 432nd ACMS, the 432nd Maintenance Squadron also provides key maintenance support. The squadron provides on- and off-equipment maintenance and maintenance operations, as well as training, analysis and inspections on aircraft, aerospace ground equipment, munitions and other equipment necessary for RPA operations.
The expansive growth of the RPA community in less than two decades would not have been possible without the active-duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard Airmen who maintain not only the aircraft but also the various systems needed for the planes to function. It is the dedication and professionalism of these men and women that has garnered the attention and recognition of leaders Air Force-wide.
Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, director of the Joint Staff, said of RPA operations, “Remote split operations are nothing short of magic and not easy. Thanks to the [Airmen] who not only make it look easy … they provide the unblinking eye on the enemy with the ability to deliver the goods when the Nation calls.”
Editor’s note: This article is part two of a four-part series.