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MQ-9 Reaper lands at Shaw AFB in historic first

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Dillon White
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Airmen from the 50th Attack Squadron and Air National Guardsmen from the 163rd Attack Wing conducted a historic first, Feb. 14, by successfully landing an MQ-9 Reaper at Shaw Air Force Base under satellite control. 

Satellite-controlled landings are becoming standard practice for the MQ-9 community and replace 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 Lt. Col. Zachary Clarke, 50th ATKS commander. “There's coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, there's coordination with the departure unit, with the arrival unit, there's coordination with finding the flight plan, and then back that up even further, you've got all the mission planning that has to be accomplished. You've got the weather planning, planning the flight plan, and then you also have to add in the satellite launch and recovery.”

Clarke said the landing at Shaw AFB, which was followed by a day where members of Shaw AFB were able to come and see the plane with their families, was the culmination of a month-long effort led by Capt. Ryan Beach, 50th ATKS assistant director of operations. 

Additionally, Clarke said that the project required a major to lead the effort, but that he and the rest of leadership suggested Beach for the task because of his leadership ability and technical know-how. Beach and his team, which included members of the 25th Operations Support Squadron, put in countless hours of effort.

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VIDEO | 01:16 | Col. Trevor Merrell, 25th Attack Group commander, Capt. Ryan Beach, 50th Attack Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot and Senior Airman Zachery Cherry, 50th Attack Squadron sensor operator speak on the importance of the historical first landing of an MQ-9 at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. Feb. 14, 2024. The 25th Attack Group, located at Shaw AFB, is home to three operational MQ-9 attack squadrons who conduct operations across the world remotely from Shaw. This historic flight served as a proof of concept demonstrating the ability to use a new satellite launch and recovery capability, which enables remotely piloted aircraft to get to any location in the world and set up an operation rapidly, in line with Agile Combat Employment. (U.S. Air Force Video by Airman 1st Class Mariana Tafur)
Speaking on this and day-to-day operations at the 50th ATKS, Beach said, “It’s important for people to understand that every action this plane takes is human driven,” he said. “Every turn, every climb, every descent, every airspeed change, there’s a human on the other side with the controls the same way a pilot has controls. There’s a stick, there’s a throttle. Obviously, we get that information visually through TV screens. We take in a lot of data visually, but we as pilots and sensor operators are 100% in control of the plane at all times.” 

During the landing at Shaw AFB, 1st Lt. Julio DiMaggio, 50th ATKS MQ-9 pilot and operations supervisor, was ‘in the seat.’ 

“The day before, we just came in and went through academics with Capt. Beach,” DiMaggio said. “We went over all the mission products and our fuel plan and talked about the overall route from March to Shaw with different waypoints.” 

DiMaggio said he and Staff Sgt. Martin Rodriguez-Flores, 50th ATKS sensor operator, conducted a flight rehearsal with Beach observing them to ensure they were ready. The day of, the team stepped into the cockpit to relieve the previous crew while the MQ-9 was over Tennessee and landed safely roughly four hours later. 

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

Senior Airman Zachery Cherry, 50th ATKS sensor operator, was ‘in the seat’ during the return landing at March ARB. 

“It's definitely pretty cool to be flying over the over the United States and a new airspace,” he said about his experience. “It went pretty smoothly, just like I expected it would go.” 

Cherry said an Air National Guard MQ-9 pilot with the 163rd Attack Wing came to Shaw AFB on temporary duty to guide the crews through landing in March Air Reserve Base for the return trip on Feb. 15th. 

“He came out and gave us some academics on the local airspace procedures, and then we went out to the simulator,” Cherry said about the preparations. “We loaded up just how the routing in the airspace looks, and then today, he was with us throughout the entire hour and a half that I was out there all the way through landing.” 

Cherry stepped into the cockpit as the MQ-9 flew over Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

“I was here when we first started training on satellite launch and recoveries and the first phase of it,” Cherry said. “Now, I've been teaching the entire squadron how to do it. We've been employing it overseas on our live missions, but now to have the confidence and to see this program and capability grow, at first coming in for a landing and it wasn’t desert, it was the state of California, was a weird feeling. Still, it was definitely a proud one to know we've made it this far and we can rely on our capabilities like that.” 

Cherry said he was glad to have the opportunity to showcase what he said is an awesome capability. 

“It displays that there are Airmen that are having a direct impact on the mission all across the world here at Shaw that'll do that for six to eight hours a day, and then 30 minutes later they're still back at home,” Cherry said. “I think that shows how important this aircraft is and how important developing our new capabilities and procedures are and to showcase one of the new ones that we're still getting better at.”