AN OFFICIAL retirement ceremony for the US Air Force’s General Atomics MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) was held at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, on March 9. Airmen from the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, RPA enterprise leaders, and MQ-1 alumni participated in the event.
The MQ-1 ceremony included the final local flight by the airmen of the 489th Attack Squadron (ATKS) and the last combat line flown by the 15th Expeditionary Attack Squadron in an undisclosed area of responsibility. An aircrew assigned to the 489th ATKS had an early arrival time of 0445hrs, received a mission brief, stepped to the cockpit and took flight with the MQ-1 for the last time.
Aligned with Air Force tradition, firefighters assigned to the 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Protection Flight stood by after the local flight and greeted the MQ-1 with a water cannon salute using two fire trucks to commemorate the occasion. Retirement of the MQ-1 marks the beginning of an all-MQ-9A Reaper force for the USAF. The transition will be fully complete by the end of calendar year 2018.
RPA pilots and sensor operators have already begun the Transition Track 4 Course to learn the platform differences between the MQ-1 and MQ-9. Aircrew members will now only qualify on the MQ-9 and become mission ready in two months. After the course, graduates will enter unit-level mission qualification training for the purpose of achieving basic mission capable or combat mission ready status. Graduates will be trained to perform the primary missions of ISR, air interdiction, and close air support.
With the retirement of the MQ-1 Predator on the horizon, during January MQ-9 Reapers were successfully flown from one combat operation to another within the US Central Command area of responsibility. This was the first time they had been flown between AORs, rather than being dismantled and shipped, meaning the transfer took only 10% of the normal time.
There are a number of possible options for the retired MQ-1s, including US and coalition museums. Creech airmen have already transported two MQ-1s to the UK for preservation – one to the American Air Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, and another to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, London. Both were fully demilitarised before being shipped. They comprise tail numbers 03-3119 and 03-3120, which have an estimated 14 years of service in the USAF. During that time, aircrews recorded approximately 22,800 flight hours and 1,500 sorties in support of combat operations and local training missions.
An initial unarmed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance RQ-1 version of the Predator first deployed and operated out of Albania in July 1995. That same month the USAF activated the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field (now Creech AFB), Nevada, as Air Combat Command’s first Predator unit. The 11th RS took operational control of the deployed RQ-1 at Taszar, Hungary, in autumn 1996. Joined in Indian Springs by the 15th RS in the summer of 1997, deployed members of these units flew the Predator’s first combat missions over the Balkans in 1999 to provide ISR for US and coalition strike aircraft under Operation Allied Force.
During early RQ-1 deployments, several aircraft were destroyed due to infrastructure problems or surface-to-air missiles. Airmen flew unarmed Predators from September 18, 2001 until October 7 of the same year, after which they flew the Predator’s first armed mission as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft continued to undergo modifications after it became strike-capable and has been continually upgraded with new capabilities. With increasing demand for RPAs, the much more capable MQ-9A Reaper began supplementing the Predator from 2006 and will now completely take-over the latter’s role.