By Air Force Capt. Al Bosco
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 17, 2008 - Having successfully surpassed two years of combat operations flying the MQ-1 Predator, the nation's first Air National Guard Predator unit is poised to spread its history-making wings again. With only minor details remaining, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing is ready to begin training the Air Force's next generation of unmanned aerial system warriors.
Beginning in early January, the unit expects to fly its first "live" training sortie at home from the former George Air Force Base, now known as Southern California Logistics Airport, about 40 miles from March.
"We are really excited about taking this critical next step in our employment of the Predator," said Air Force Col. Randall Ball, 163rd Operations Group commander. "We've been working toward this since getting the Predator mission in 2006, and it has taken a total team effort to go from concept to reality as quickly as we have."
Since transitioning from its support mission flying the KC-135 Stratotanker to conducting active combat flying the Predator, the wing has proven it has the mettle to meet any challenge head-on. In fact, shortly after beginning Predator flight operations, the wing was charged to provide three continuous combat air patrols over Southwest Asia.
As a result of the "surge," the wing has amassed more than 21,000 flying hours supporting combat operations overseas by providing combatant commanders with 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week aerial surveillance and precision strike capability.
"This has truly been an historic event for us," Air Force Col. Al Aimar, 163rd RW commander, said. "It's been quite an exciting time, and we're eager to begin the next chapter in this remarkable mission."
Once the facilities and infrastructure needed to support the flying program at SCLA are in place, the wing will begin flying the Predator locally in preparation for its first class of Predator aviators, scheduled to begin in April.
"We need to make sure we take a steady approach to starting the flight training program here so we can ensure we are training the best Predator pilots possible, able to step out of the classroom and into the combat theater providing the kind of support commanders need and have come to expect," Air Force Lt. Col. Kirby Colas, 196th Reconnaissance Squadron commander, said.
Initially, the wing will begin training Air National Guard personnel as Predator aircrews, but the program is expected to expand to include training active-duty aviators as well relieving some of the load for Creech Air Force Base, Nev., currently the only base training Predator aircrews.
Since the wing already has extensive experience with the platform, providing the training to both Guard and active-duty aircrews is expected to be a smooth process. In fact, several of the unit's current senior-level pilots and sensor operators already have gained valuable experience in the academic environment, having served as instructor pilots and sensor operators at Creech.
"Our wing is really a unique organization," Aimar said. "We've gone through a tremendous amount of change over the past couple years, but the amazing thing is nobody complains. Every time a new mission or task has come up, everyone across the wing was quick to jump in to figure out how we could get it done. As a commander, it makes me proud to see that kind of dedication, not only to our nation, but to the warfighters on the ground, who rely on our support to accomplish their missions."
Currently, the wing conducts Predator maintenance training in its recently established state-of-the-art field training detachment operating under Creech's Detachment 13 as part of Air Education and Training Command. The fully accredited maintenance training facility trains active-duty and Guard Predator maintenance personnel.
(Air Force Capt. Al Bosco serves with the California National Guard.)