How is it possible to safely launch and recover an MQ-9 Reaper aircraft to-and-from dozens of other teams every day and around the world? Ask the 489th Attack Squadron.
The 489th ATKS, a unit under the 432nd Operations Group, is the only squadron in the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing whose sole mission is to deploy aircrew downrange.
The squadron does this because the MQ-9 currently requires line-of-sight piloting for take-offs and landings, meaning that while most Aircrew for the MQ-9 are located stateside, a select few Airmen must be forward deployed to enable the 24/7 mission.
Mission control element pilots and sensor operators rely on the LRE aircrew downrange to launch a Reaper, and safely land it once the mission is accomplished. This is a process the Airmen of the 489th ATKS are trained and equipped to execute daily.
However, there was a point and time when the 489th ATKS were not the subject matter experts of this certain task.
Prior to the reactivation of the 489th ATKS in 2016, MCE squadrons across the wing would spend months training and equipping their own aircrew for LRE tasks downrange. Airmen would then deploy and support launch and recovery, only to return to their mission combat element squadron back home. This scattered the focus of the Airmen supporting two different missions. MCE squadrons would lose aircrew members for months at a time and upon return, they’d have to be re-trained on the mission and operations they’d forgotten about while supporting LRE downrange.
Now, the 489th ATKS serves as the 432nd WG/432nd AEW’s readily trained and deployable force.
“MCE squadrons used to sacrifice a lot of personal and professional involvement with their troops while they trained for LRE missions,” said Master Sgt. John 489th ATKS superintendent. “With the 489th, we’re now able to supervise, train, and equip Airmen all over the world. I have Airmen and supervisors in two different locations and they’re still able to communicate with and develop their troops.”
Processes have been improved by the dedication of the 489th ATKS to LRE, and subsequently, the same increase in effectiveness of MCE squadrons throughout the 432nd WG/432nd AEW.
“That’s what makes us unique,” said Lt. Col. Kindall, 489th ATKS commander. “We are able to provide more expertise and there has been an increased efficiency in having a squadron devoted to launch and recovery.”
LRE aircrews are also specially trained and qualified for MCE tasks in the event they need to provide base defense at a location downrange. However, recently the Airmen of the 489th exhibited this versatility by supporting the wildland firefighting efforts in California.
“We train our Airmen with different mission sets, on top of launch and recovery,” said Master Sgt. Mike, 489th ATKS operations superintendent. “And we make sure those skills don’t atrophy over time in case we have to provide base support downrange or support for something like the wildfires on the homefront.”
Ensuring the readiness of an array of MQ-9 skillsets is especially critical as the Air Force begins to see the advancements in the testing of Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability for the weapons system.
Constant training keeps 489th ATKS Airmen on their toes, while developing a more lethal and ready force. The squadron may be serving the 432nd WG/432nd AEW as a jack of all trades, but it must be noted that they are currently the masters of launch and recovery.