On an isolated airstrip far, far away an MQ-9 Reaper has landed. Regional tensions are high and so are the threats from near-peer adversaries.
The Reaper scales the Air Force’s largest area of operations collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Midway through a 12-hour sortie the Reaper needs to refuel, but there isn’t much time.
This is the scenario Airmen from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., and Creech AFB in Nevada are preparing for.
Exercise Agile Combat Employment (ACE) Reaper marked a historic milestone in MQ-9 Reaper operations with the first-ever successful hot pit refueling training event. Maj. Adam Smith, MQ-9 rapid response operations director, and a team of operators, maintainers and technicians, were the masterminds behind it all.
“Hot-pit refueling, or rapid refueling as we called it, is the act of refueling the MQ-9 while power is still applied to the aircraft,” Smith said. “The intent is to minimize the time between landing and turning the aircraft for a relaunch.”
Hot pit refueling is part of the ACE concept of operations which strategically places bare bone crews throughout the AOR to receive aircraft, rapidly refuel and reload munitions, and return them to the skies. The capability minimizes the infrastructure and personnel required for a mission giving commanders and Airmen unprecedented flexibility.
For the ACE Reaper scenario, Master Sgt. Travis Wannarka, 9th Aircraft Maintenance Unit MQ-9 production superintendent, had a handful of crew chiefs and avionics technicians on the ground ready to work.
“We wanted to work out any issues here at home station versus being at a remote location with minimal support,” said Wannarka. “We worked with quality assurance, the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron and our subject-matter experts on every step of the job guide to ensure safety and accuracy while remaining compliant with parent (Air Force Instructions) and job guides.”
Smith and Wannarka attested to various challenges during the execution including radio outages, numerous logistics hurdles and unpredictable weather. But through it all, the team’s ability to communicate, band together regardless of specialty, and remain adaptable was the difference between mission failure and mission success.
“Communication is paramount when conducting rapid refuel,” Smith said. “There are a lot of moving pieces and communication is essential to ensure everyone is on the same page. From aircrew running checklists to maintainers prepping the aircraft to coordination with the fuel trucks and the airfield, everyone has to understand their role and the intent.”
Leading up to the exercise Holloman and Creech Airmen worked closely together to develop a plan of execution and work through the kinks. That little bit of extra preparation paid off.
“I’ve only seen once before in my career where I had a group of Airmen working in conjunction like that on a daily basis,” Wannarka admitted. “Huddled together I’d have weather, avionics, operations, sheet metal, communications, aerospace ground equipment and logistics troops all working as one to complete the mission. And not just ‘working,’ but getting along and making friendships.”
By the end of the exercise, Smith and Wannarka agreed the training was a success on all fronts and are confident the Airmen are ready to face whatever the future holds, as a team.
“We have an amazing group of Airmen capable of rapidly coming together as a cohesive team, solving problems on the fly and adapting to a dynamic environment,” Smith said. “This exercise instilled in our personnel the skills and mentality to generate combat power from any location in the world.”