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Guard unit provides 'one-stop' Predator training

by Capt. Al Bosco
163rd Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

10/16/2008 - MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- As the Air Force's and Air National Guard's unmanned aircraft system mission continues to grow, Airmen with the 163rd Maintenance Group here are stepping up their training program to ensure availability of enough highly-skilled personnel to support these systems, especially the MQ-1 Predator.

Initially operating under the 372nd Training Squadron's Detachment 13 assigned to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., unit officials spent the early years getting their staff trained and completing the state-of-the-art facilities while also providing limited training here and augmenting the active duty schoolhouse.

Fast forward a little more than a year and the unit no longer operates under Nellis' training umbrella, but as a stand-alone training facility, known as Detachment 26 and assigned under Air Education and Training Command. Additionally, the training operation has grown five-fold and has transformed into a 'one-stop shop' for active duty and Guard units seeking Predator maintenance training.

The training, which began in April of 2008 as just an introductory course, has since expanded to include specialized courses such as ground control station-communications maintenance, Rotax engine maintenance, tactical aircraft maintenance and avionics. Additionally, unit instructors have provided training to more than 150 maintainers from active duty units, as well as personnel from Guard units across the United States also involved in the Predator mission.

According to Senior Master Sgt. Ron Egan, chief of Det. 26, the growth of the unit has been a boon, not only for the maintenance group, but for the Predator mission and Air Force as a whole.

"By providing instruction across the spectrum of Predator maintenance, and continuing to expand to meet the mission's training needs, we are bridging the gap providing the kinds of capabilities that were once only available at active duty training locations," Sergeant Egan said. "That has made us an important part of the UAS mission and has certainly made this an exciting time to be involved with the Predator."

In fact, according to Master Sgt. Michael Adams, a Predator communications instructor who spent two years teaching at Nellis before the detachment stood up at March, the unit has nearly a dozen instructors and owns all of its own equipment, detached and separated from the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing's operational Predator mission, allowing training to be provided regardless of operational demands elsewhere.

"Having instructors and equipment available to teach the courses here is great for us and for the students," Sergeant Adams said. "We can provide the training students need when they need it and we can tailor our instruction to meet their needs. The impact is huge because it allows the students to see and understand how processes work a step at a time and prepares them to apply the skills they'll need in an operational environment as soon as they get there."

And soon, unit instructors will be able to take the training to a new level as 163 RW officials open a flying training unit and begin flying the Predator locally at Southern California Logistics Airport -- formerly George Air Force Base -- located near Victorville about 40 miles from March ARB.

"When the wing starts its flying training mission, that will open up a lot of doors for us," Sergeant Adams said. "We'll be able to provide hands-on training and let the students interact with flying aircraft so they can learn and practice what they will be doing in a realistic environment."

On the horizon, Sergeant Egan said plans are in the works to expand the unit's training capabilities. In fact, future plans include offering a KU-band (satellite communications) class, as well as adding maintenance courses for the Predator's big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper. Additionally, unit officials may even provide training for Department of Homeland Security personnel.

"It's really a shot in the arm for the Predator program," Sergeant Egan said. "Everyone is happy that we're up and running and we've received a lot of positive feedback on our operations."

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