Story by Tu-Uyen Tran
The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead
FARGO — Sometime over the next three months, those visiting Hector International Airport may see an unmanned aircraft taxiing down one of the runways, its tails displaying the well-known red tail flash of the Happy Hooligans.
That would be the MQ-9 Reaper, the North Dakota Air National Guard unit’s newest aircraft and the first assigned here since 2013.
Col. Britt Hatley, who commands the Hooligans, formally known as the 119th Wing, told reporters in a Thursday, May 25, briefing that he doesn’t have a fixed timeframe but hopes the aircraft will be operational by late summer.
The wing’s pilots have been flying two Reapers in overseas combat missions from control rooms in Fargo since October when they ceased flying MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. But they haven’t had locally based aircraft to train with.
Hatley said local aircraft are important both because maintenance crew won’t have to travel all over the country to train as before and because they’re a tangible sign that the wing is still here. That helps with recruitment, he said.
For years, the Hooligans flew highly visible F-16 Fighting Falcons, sleek grey aircraft with thunderous engines. The last Falcons left in 2006. They were replaced here by C-21s, fairly low-profile business jets, and they left in 2013 leaving the Hooligans with no local aircraft.
The Predators that the wing flew right after the Falcons left were based at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Reapers are bigger, more capable cousins of the Predators, spindly aircraft with bulbous noses well known for hunting and killing Al Qaeda members overseas. Both are made by General Atomics.
According to the Air Force, while the Predator can haul a maximum of 450 pounds the Reaper can haul 3,750 pounds. The Predator cruises at 84 mph with a range of 770 miles. The Reaper cruises at 230 mph with a range of 1,150 miles. That translates to bigger weapons and longer time loitering over the battlefield.
When the Hooligans’ two Reapers arrive here, they’ll come disassembled and packed in containers straight from the factory. He joked that they’ll still have that “new car” smell.
Maintenance crews here will assemble the aircraft and run tests before pilots begin operating them. Following a cautious “crawl walk run” philosophy, Hatley said pilots here will practice taxiing them first before flying them.
Because the pilots of unmanned aircraft can’t look out the window, they are less aware of their surroundings. The Federal Aviation Administration generally does not allow them to mix with manned aircraft, such as the many passenger jets that fly in and out of Hector airport.
Hartley said new radars allowing unmanned aircraft to automatically avoid manned aircraft if there is a risk of collision are still being tested and aren’t available. For the time being, the Civil Air Patrol has volunteered to fly “chase planes” to act as lookouts for Reaper pilots, he said, escorting to and from the military airspace over Camp Grafton, the National Guard training area near Devils Lake.
The Hooligans are also requesting the FAA set aside a special corridor for unmanned aircraft from Hector airport to Camp Grafton similar to the one between Grand Forks Air Force Base and the camp, according to Hatley. The Reapers wouldn’t need escorts if that happened.
Besides Reapers, the 119th Wing’s mission includes analyzing images from various kinds of unmanned aircraft and providing support services for the Air Force, including guarding nuclear missiles at Minot Air Force Base. It’s authorized to have 1,195 personnel and now has a little less than 1,100.
Hatley said the Hooligans are hiring more intelligence analysts and aircraft technicians, among others, to reach full staff.