Air National Guard drone fleet to leave Fort Drum, operate primarily in Syracuse
By GORDON BLOCK | Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. | Published: September 17, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. — In a cost-cutting move, the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing will move its drone operations from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield to Hancock Field Air National Guard Base near Syracuse next year.
The plan was discussed Friday at the annual meeting of the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority.
The unit’s goal is to complete the move by next summer, but the timing will depend on Federal Aviation Administration approval for take-offs and landings for the unit’s MQ-9 Reaper aircraft at the Syracuse installation.
The unit has operated at Fort Drum’s airfield since October 2011, with locally based crew members remotely operating the drones during take-off and landing and Syracuse-based pilots taking over via satellite once in the air. Maintenance of the aircraft has also been done at the local airfield.
The unit claims that between a reduction in cancelled flights that wasted training time and man hours, along with a reduced need for staff and crews to travel the approximately 80 miles between the two sites, the change should save nearly $1 million.
About 25 to 30 airmen have been performing the Reaper mission here. Most of them will see their work shift to Hancock when the drones are moved there.
The air wing’s change follows the FAA-approved expansion of air space in July. The 20-mile-by-20-mile space covers portions of Onondaga, Madison and Oswego counties. The aircraft fly at a military-designated altitude 18,000 feet.
Col. Greg A. Semmel, the air wing’s commander, said when the new space was announced in August that the space would allow more flexibility to fly, with weather conditions less harsh than the air space around Fort Drum.
Despite the change in mission, the drones will not be out of the Fort Drum area completely. The air wing’s drones will still do their armed missions in the post’s airspace, with the aircraft landing at the airfield to be armed before starting their missions.
Since last December, the air wing has had clearance for armed missions at Fort Drum’s ranges with the aircraft. The wing loads the 10,500-pound Reaper aircraft with 500-pound laser-guided bombs for training.
The change in mission comes after $5.2 million was allocated in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years for the air wing’s current two-bay hangar at Wheeler-Sack, which is scheduled to be completed this month. The wing’s three Reapers are currently housed in a temporary structure next to the airfield’s rapid deployment center.
In addition, discussions have been taking place in Congress for months to determine whether to support a $4.7 million two-bay expansion of the hangar in the 2014 defense authorization bill.
Eric Durr, Guard spokesman, said the expansion would continue to be pursued, as the space at Wheeler-Sack would still be necessary when the air wing conducts its armed missions. Additionally, the hangar would allow for the drones to land at the airfield at times when flying into Syracuse is not possible.