A pilot strikes a target from high above in a remote area of Afghanistan. Only, he’s not in the Middle East, rather sitting inside a control room in Montgomery County. It’ll soon be a reality as part of a new mission being entrusted to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 111th Fighter Wing.
The National Guard is building a drone ground-control station at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham, Pa. Pilots will remotely control MQ-9 Reaper drones on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions across the globe.
“This is an enduring mission for the Air Force and, I think, another solid foothold here in Horsham to keep the base viable for the years to come,” said Col. Howard Eissler. As commander of the 111th Fighter Wing, Eissler will oversee the mission which launches in October.
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A team of 250 pilots, sensor and weapon operators and support staff will be brought in to run the drone program. Seventy-nine will be full-time positions working around the clock to help the drones carry out their mission. All of the positions are new and will need to be filled.
At least $7 million will be spent to install the drone control station and upgrade security. Currently, the station does not have around the clock gate security, but that will change.
The 200-acre station hugs homes, shopping centers and businesses in the bustling Montgomery County community. Eissler says officials aren’t concerned the new installation will become any more of a security target. He says similar drone control teams are in place in bases across the country and haven’t seen issues.
“We’re maybe a little tighter to the community than others, but the aircraft won’t be here so it’s not really a factor.”
Drones will not fly into or out of the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, they will simply be remotely controlled elsewhere.
Overseas, crews will pilot the drones through takeoff and send them to a cruising altitude of around 10,000 feet. That’s when the Horsham team will take over.
“We’ll get the satellite link hooked up with them, they’ll hand them off to Horsham and we will continue the mission,” Eissler says. “That mission can last anywhere from a five hour to 19 hour to a 24 hour mission.”
Once the mission is finished, the overseas ground team will again take over and land the drone. Eissler says a control delay of about one second prevents the remote team from handling takeoff and landing.
Officials say if and when the drones come out of active service, they expect them to be housed at Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard Center in central Pennsylvania. Once there, the aircraft would only be permitted to fly in restricted airspace around Fort Indiantown Gap for training.
“They would take off from there, fly in the area of Fort Indiantown Gap and then land at Fort Indiantown Gap,” Major General Wesley Craig, head of the Pennsylvania National Guard. “We can’t fly them here because the FAA won’t let us – too much air traffic, as you can imagine around here.”
Craig says only a catastrophic event, like a nuclear bomb being detonated in Philadelphia, could bring the drones outside of that restricted airspace.
“We’d have to fly and find out the extent of the damage. That would only be the possible time we’d be allowed to fly.”
The mission is a win for the Pennsylvania National Guard. Military presence at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station has shrunk in recent years with the Navy and Air Force leaving as the Department of Defense consolidated operations.
“They used to fly A10s here on the base. If you cut and paste the mission of the A10 onto what the MQ-9 does, it’s almost an exact match,” Eissler said. “I think it’s one of the reasons why we got the mission here.”
As for the people living and working around the base, most welcome the new mission and say they’re not concerned about security.
“If they’re jobs involved, hey, with the economy the way it is, bring them on. Let’s get some drones and get some jobs,” said Jim McLaughlin.
“I have no real problem with it at all. It’s probably a good use of the facility,” said Steven Babb. “If they need a place to do it, it’s probably the best place to do it.”
Roy Freiman says he’s lived near the base for 35 years and has never heard of an issue at the base. He welcomes the mission.
“It’ll be good for the economy here,” he said. “The most important thing is they’re creating jobs.”
“It’s no big deal. They’ve had planes in and out of here all the time,” said Nikki Thomas. Her son attends school down the street from the station. She’s not concerned about security. “I think it’s secure enough.”
But fellow mom, Lisa Carnival, isn’t as comfortable about having drone piloting near her kids’ school.
“I wouldn’t think that would be such a smart idea next to so many schools. I’m sure most parents would wish that they would put it somewhere else.”
While the mission will begin in October, Eissler says it’ll take about two years before the station and team will be ready to begin piloting drones from Horsham.