Remotely piloted aircraft crews maintain mission readiness during COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Laraine Thompson
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

COVID-19 cannot stop the dedicated Airmen who fly remotely piloted aircraft in support of global operations.

RPA crews at the 22nd Attack Squadron, part of the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, Creech Air Force Base, have devised alternative procedures to keep flying MQ-9 Reaper global missions while following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.

“We know we have an important job,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Auger, Commander, 22nd Attack Squadron. “Our mission to support our forces downrange with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and precision strike cannot slow down during the pandemic. We take our mission seriously, and we are very proud to be here.”

COVID-19 has now increased health awareness for everyone, and RPA pilots are no exception.

The MQ-9’s two-person crew, consisting of a pilot and sensor operator, sits inside the Ground Control Station, or cockpit, where it is difficult to practice social distancing. The squadron has introduced new procedures that start before the RPA crews leave home, continue throughout their shift and do not end until they return home.

Before they report for duty each day, every crewmember makes a personal and environmental self-assessment by reviewing a series of questions, like “How am I feeling? How is the environment that I’ve been around? How have the last 48 hours been? Have I been interacting with people who have been coughing? Have I been practicing social distancing?”

“COVID-19 is a threat that can’t be seen, so it’s important to determine if you have been in situations that increase your risk of exposure or have signs and symptoms that suggest COVID-19 infection,” explained Maj. Mary Anne, Flight Commander, Creech Medical Clinic. “Performing the personal and environmental assessment helps to do just that.”

Airmen can call the medical hotline if they give a negative response to any of the assessment questions. Based on their symptoms, the medical professional will instruct them to proceed to a testing site or schedule an appointment with their provider.

Before COVID-19, many crewmembers would vanpool to the squadron facility for mass briefings with other crews and mission teams. Since COVID-19, crewmembers drive in their own cars to the squadron facility where they must wear a facemask and maintain social distancing. The mass briefings have been replaced with multiple smaller ones limited to six or fewer individuals. After the briefings, the pilots and sensor operators certify they are healthy and prepared to fly, then proceed to their cockpit.

“The COVID-19 virus is mainly spread between close contacts through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks,” explained Mary Anne. “Social distancing and wearing facemasks help decrease the spread of COVID-19 between people who are crucial to a mission that is performed around the clock, every day of the year.”

Common use surfaces in the squadron building are thoroughly cleaned between each around-the-clock, eight-hour shift. “Anything that anybody could have come into contact with has been wiped down by the prior shift before the new team shows up for the day,” explains Auger.

Each cockpit is also thoroughly disinfected by the outgoing two-person crew. They wipe down all surfaces from computer screens and monitors to control sticks and throttles. Then the incoming crew repeats the process before they fly.

“According to the CDC, it’s also possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes,” said Mary Anne. “It’s challenging to know if you’ve completely disinfected a surface because you can’t see the virus with the naked eye. Disinfecting the commonly used surfaces multiple times a day reduces the likelihood of contamination.”

Auger noted that safety precautions continue even when pilots return home.

“If they have a garage, they get undressed in the garage, and head into the house to take a shower,” said Auger. “If they don’t have a garage, they do the best they can, like leave their boots outside. Then they plug back in for any updates over texts or emails to keep that communication process going. That’s the life cycle of our COVID changes.”

COVID-19 health and safety procedures have been modified through the use of available electronic communications and information resources from multiple Department of Defense and Air Force resources.

“We make a deliberate effort to make information digestible and actionable for squadron members,” said Auger. “Communication and transparency are critical in preparing for COVID-19. We’re using everything to stay involved and communicate all expectations and issues.”

The mission of every 432nd Wing attack squadron is to meet the 24/7 demand for MQ-9 Reaper airpower. The RPA Airmen have adapted to continue fending off the nation’s enemies and the invisible adversary that is COVID-19.

“Whether it’s the pilots or the sensors or the maintenance or the mission support, we are engaged in fighting our nation’s enemies,” emphasizes Auger. “That is what gives us meaning and it is why we wake up every day to do the mission.”