In an era where combat extends from the battlefield to cyberspace, technological advancement can mean the difference between victory and defeat; between lives lost and lives saved.
One of the most advanced airframes in the Air Force’s arsenal, the MQ-9 Reaper is the manifestation of technical ingenuity and a guardian for ground forces in Afghanistan.
Supporting the largest Reaper unit in the Air Force, Airmen assigned to the 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron work 24 hours a day to ensure the Reaper fleet is fully operational and ready to launch at a moment’s notice.
“I perform preventative maintenance as well as scheduled and unscheduled maintenance on the aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Adam, an avionics systems specialist assigned to the 451st EAMXS. “If it has anything to do with electronics or a computer system, it’s my job to make sure it’s working properly.”
The Reaper, a remotely piloted aircraft primarily designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection, can also perform close air support, combat search and rescue, precision strike and other critical functions, making it an indispensable tool.
“There are many things that require unique and specific attention pertaining to avionics and the kind of education the Air Force provides us,” Adam said. “The Reaper is a sophisticated airframe and it requires an elevated level of care and comprehension.”
In addition to avionics, aircraft mechanics are also on hand to ensure troops in the field have the support they require should the need arise.
“Unlike other aircraft, Reaper aircraft mechanics not only take care of the airframe, but the engine as well,” said Tech Sgt. Jacob. “With fighter aircraft, they have a dedicated engine shop, but we became an all-in-one shop for this specific airframe.”
Comprised of approximately 100 active-duty and Air National Guard Airmen, the 451st EAMXS acts as a melting pot where Airmen from various facets of the Reaper community come together and function as a cohesive unit.
“I’m a guard guy,” Jacob said. “But I haven’t found it challenging to blend with a group of primarily active duty maintainers because they know what they’re doing, I know what I’m doing, and at the end of the day we’re all here to accomplish the same goal.”
Adam echoed his colleague’s sentiments.
“Working with guard and reserve Airmen makes things more interesting,” he said. “It adds a different level of experience to the group and brings new perspectives to the equation. When I leave here I will take information I’ve learned from our guard Airmen back to my home unit and that’s how we become more knowledgeable as an organization.”
Jacob on his first deployment, and Adam on his third, volunteered their time to fulfil the Reaper mission in Afghanistan.
“I volunteered for this deployment,” Jacob said. “There are Airmen who are on their third and fourth deployments to Afghanistan and I decided this was an opportunity to share the load and gain some valuable experience.”
Adam, having already served the required tour length for his deployment, chose to double his time in country by extending.
“I’ve worked this mission every time I’ve come to Kandahar,” he said. “It’s been interesting to see the aspects of our assignment that change and the ones that stay the same firsthand. It’s such a learning experience being out here and I’ve worked with the best people I’ve ever known. I would never want to give that up.”
As evidenced by their willingness to serve, purpose is not something 451st EAMXS Airmen struggle to find at Kandahar.
“I think anytime we can potentially protect American lives by simply not sending a pilot up in an aircraft, it’s beneficial to us as an Air Force,” Adam said. “We are able to alleviate the strain placed on other aircraft and also support ground troops. We’re accomplishing the mission every time we protect an American life and that gives me satisfaction.”
(Editor’s note: Last names were removed due to safety and security reasons.)