Air National Guard MQ-1 Predator School House Students Fly

by Senior Airman Paul Duquette
163d Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

3/31/2009 - 03/31/2009 - MARCH ARB -- The 163d Reconnaissance Wing recently had its first Formal Training Unit students operate an MQ-1 unmanned aerial vehicle, which solidified the wing as the first ANG unit to stand up a Predator FTU. The sensor operator's flight was March 31 and the pilot's was April 2. 

The Wing's FTU trains aircrew to fly the MQ-1 Predator and operate the optics, lasers and video cameras contained in the sensor ball. Before the wing stood up its flying school house, Predator aircrew trained with active-duty Air Force at Creech AFB, Nev. 

The line-up for the first ANG Predator FTU students to fly was Sensor Operator Staff Sgt. Giovanni Sanchez, 196th Reconnaissance Squadron, and Pilot Capt. Howard Gorberg, 147th Reconnaissance Wing from Texas ANG out of Ellington Field. 

Previous to the 163 RW, Sergeant Sanchez worked in intelligence in the 701st Combat Operations Squadron, a reserve tenant unit at March ARB, for eight years. "I transferred into a sensor operator position because I wanted to know I was making a difference," he added. 

According to Captain Gorberg, "I was introduced to the Predator mission through my previous position as the functional area manager for Predator operations at National Guard Bureau. After about a year, I was presented the opportunity to become a pilot flying the aircraft and I jumped on it." 

The 163 RW has been working toward standing up an FTU since it received the reconnaissance mission in 2006. It was the final step for the 163 RW to become operational in all aspects of its mission. 

Currently the FTU's ground control station and classroom facilities are located at March ARB. Due to FAA restrictions, the Predators the students operate are not stationed at the base, but at a Launch and Recovery Element at Southern California Logistics Airport, more than 60 miles north of March. At the LRE, dedicated 163 RW members maintain, launch and recover the aircraft before and after every student training sortie. 

One special requirement mandated by the FAA is a chase plane. The purpose of the chase plane is to escort the Predator to restricted airspace. The plane must stay within two miles of the Predator at all times and the crew consists of a pilot and an observer. 

"The students don't actually take the controls of the aircraft until it has been launched and flown into Edwards AFB restricted airspace, about 30 minutes north of SCLA," said Maj. Eric Fagerland, qualified pilot and instructor for the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron and FTU. 

The student pilots and sensor operators go through the same nine-week-course with some breakout sessions, which are specific to each AFSC. The make-up of the first class to go through this course was five sensor operators and five pilots, all of which were Air National Guard from Ariz., Texas, Nev., N.D. and Calif. 

The course consists of academics the first week, flight simulators and tests the second week, and in the third week the students are given the option to be put in the driver's seat. The course thereafter is dedicated to more advanced academics, more flight simulator training and actual flights. 

Throughout the course, students have strict requirements they must complete to graduate: score at least 80 percent on four academic tests; complete more than 12 simulator flights; six actual flights for pilots and nine for sensor operators. At the end of the course, each student is put to the ultimate test and evaluated during their final flight. 

"There is a lot to consider when scheduling the flights for the students," said Major Fagerland. "We fly one sortie per day with four to five shifts, Monday through Friday."
Most of the shifts have two students, a pilot and instructor, a sensor operator and instructor and an intelligence mission coordinator. This translates to eight to ten students per training sortie. 

Just like any other flight, each shift must be briefed on their mission objectivities before they step foot into the ground control station. After the flight they are debriefed about what went wrong and what went right. 

"I use photos of the local area gathered from previous missions to create unique and dynamic scenarios for each shift," said acting intelligence mission coordinator for Sergeant Sanchez's flight, Tech. Sgt. David Respicio. "Sometimes I throw in simulated missile attacks or other surprises, to create a more realistic training environment." 

"Just before the end of each shift, the follow-on crew will brief for their scenario," said Major Fagerland, "When the next crew comes in, they are updated on the current conditions by the flying crew then the crews swap out, just as they would during real world operations." 

At the end of the day, it's one small flight for a student and one final step forward for the 163 RW in becoming fully operational in all its missions - Field Training Detachment, operational Predator mission and now the Formal Training Unit.