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MQ-9 Reaper lands at Shaw in historic first

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Dillon White
  • 432d Wing/432d Air Expeditionary Wing

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- U.S. Airmen assigned to the 50th Attack Squadron, here, and the 163d Attack Wing, California Air National Guard, conducted a historic first on Feb. 14, by successfully landing an MQ-9 Reaper at Shaw Air Force Base under satellite control.

The landing served as a proof of concept, demonstrating the effectiveness of satellite controlled landings in national airspace and setting a precedent for an MQ-9 to land at Shaw as part of a ribbon cutting ceremony for the 25th Attack Group’s new $90 million dollar headquarters facility slated for April.

Satellite controlled landings are becoming standard practice for the MQ-9 community, replacing legacy processes requiring additional ground control stations, aircrews, and maintenance support.

“It is so much more than just moving an airplane from one spot to another,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Zachary Clarke, 50th ATKS commander. “There's coordination with the FAA, with the departure unit, with the arrival unit. There's coordination with the flight plan, and then back that up even further, you've got all the mission planning that has to be accomplished, and then you also have to add in the satellite launch and recovery.”

The landing at Shaw, which was followed by an event where members of Team Shaw were able to come and see the plane with their families, was the culmination of what was a month-long effort led by U.S. Air Force Capt. Ryan Beach, 50th ATKS assistant director of operations.

Beach spoke to news media who were present  the day of the landing to share with local communities what he and his fellow Airmen do on a daily basis.

“It’s important for people to understand that every action this plane takes is human driven,” Beach said. “Every turn, every climb, every descent, every air speed change, there’s a human on the other side with the controls the same way a manned aircraft has controls. There’s a stick, there’s a throttle. We get that information visually through TV screens instead of in person, and it’s a lot of data we take in visually, but we as pilots and sensor operators are 100% in control of the plane at all times.”

During the landing, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Julio DiMaggio, 50th ATKS MQ-9 pilot and operations supervisor, was ‘in the seat.’ He and the sensor operator conducted a rehearsal of the flight the day prior, with Beach observing to ensure they were prepared.

The day of the flight, the team stepped into the cockpit to relieve the previous crew while the MQ-9 was over Tennessee and landed safely about four hours later.

“I think it's just really exciting, starting on the ground and taking off and landing,”DiMaggio said. “It's probably my favorite part.”

DiMaggio’s partner in the flight was U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Zachery Cherry, 50th ATKS sensor operator.

“It's pretty cool to be flying over the United States in new airspace,” Cherry said. “It went pretty smoothly, just like I expected it would go.”

An MQ-9 pilot with the 163d Attack Wing came to Shaw on temporary duty to guide the crews through landing at March Air Reserve Base, California for the return trip on Feb. 15.

“I was here when we first started training on satellite launch and recoveries, and now I've been teaching the entire squadron how to do it," Cherry said. “We've been employing it overseas on our live missions, but now to have the confidence, and to see this program and capability grow - I’m proud to know we've made it this far and we can rely on capabilities like this.”

Cherry said he was glad to have the opportunity to showcase what he calls an “awesome capability.”

“It displays that Airmen are having a direct impact on the mission all across the world,” Cherry said. “I think that shows how important this aircraft is, how important developing our new capabilities and procedures are and showcasing one of the new ones that we're still getting better at.”