MQ-9 Aircrew reflect on partnership after milestone flight

By Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing

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Some things are better in pairs – peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, or salt and pepper.  There are many dynamic duos out there, but one could argue that no one is as effective at delivering persistent attack and reconnaissance as an MQ-9 Reaper pilot and sensor operator.

This team of two perform an intricate dance of trust and communication to effectively accomplish their mission from thousands of miles away every day.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a large Remotely Piloted Aircraft, tipping the scales at over 10,000 pounds while carrying 3,000 pounds of munitions. The wingspan is larger than an A-10 Warthog and the aircraft is remotely piloted from ground control stations in the U.S. 

The men and women operating these aircraft are trained to operate these aircraft from the ground safely and effectively, 24 hours a day.

“I started [piloting] MQ-9s in 2010 and I had been flying MQ-1’s before that starting back in 2009,” said Maj. Jordan Smith, 25th Operations Support Squadron assistant director of operations. “You form a unique bond of trust with the sensor operators in the seat next to you .”

According to Smith, both pilots and sensor operators learn from each other while in the seat, and an experienced wingman goes a long way when facing a challenging mission. The pilot’s role is to control the aircraft and command the mission while the sensor operator’s role is to scan the area and guide the weapons.

“It’s important to have trust in your wingman,” said Tech. Sgt. Abishai Giles, 482nd Attack Squadron sensor operator. “Smith is an elite aviator and he serves as the epitome of attention to detail and is a master of his craft as a pilot.”

The unique bond between pilot and sensor is forged through hours shared in combat. Giles said having a partner that he trusts allows him to focus on his roles in the aircraft. Although MQ-9 aircrew often switch shifts and partners, they are still able to share experiences through the missions and milestones they’ve undergone together.

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, Smith and Giles, both hit an aviation milestone together and surpassed 5,000 combat flying hours at the same time during the same mission. While not a first, reaching that many hours on any aircraft is no small feat for aviators, let alone reaching it at the same time.

According to Smith and Giles, the 5,000 hours of experience they earned can be applied to raising the next generation of RPA pilots and sensor operators.

“I’ve had my fun and it’s time to take a back seat, get my [Airmen] more experience, and lead them into more opportunities to shine alongside their counterparts,” Giles said. “It was an honor to reach this milestone together with Smith.”

Although reaching 5,000 hours was an important milestone to both Smith and Giles, both of them never forgot what’s really important; the strength of their bond and the impact that they have on their mission.

“In the moment of flying the mission, you're so busy that you don’t have time to reflect on the importance of what just happened,” Smith said. “You look back and think upon the things that you did with your wingman and you’re in awe of what the Air Force can accomplish together as a team to support the men and women on the ground and keep them safe.”