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‘Thank you for smoking’: Creech Hunters host REAPER SMOKE 2022 exercise, crowning ‘best of the best’ MQ-9 aircrew

  • Published
  • By Capt. Stephen J. Collier
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Nearly 45 MQ-9 Reaper crews from across the United States entered the base’s flight simulators April 6-7 here. And only one crew emerged on top.

Testing these remotely piloted aircraft pilots and sensor operators, REAPER SMOKE 2022 pitted dozens of aircrews against each other from more than 35 separate squadrons for the chance to be known throughout the RPA community as simply: the best. Now in its third iteration, REAPER SMOKE evaluates crews on a number of criteria, to include crew resource management, weapons precision, team coordination, and Airmanship. And according to Lt. Col. Brent, each criteria was specifically identified because of their critical importance to everyday, real-world mission requirements.

“Our Airmen executed a complex tactical plan with minimal time to prepare, by relying on core RPA skills necessary to execute our mission, any time, anywhere,” said Brent, 17th Attack Squadron Chief of Current Operations and mission commander for this year’s exercise. “REAPER SMOKE embodies a variety of tactical requirements that RPA crews should be able to perform, and will likely need to perform in a near-peer fight.”

To kick off the event, aircrews gaggled together at the base’s Owl’s Nest community center to hear opening remarks from visiting Brig. Gen. Stewart Hammons, Air Force Director of RPA and Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities, and one of the service’s top RPA advocates. Hammons highlighted to the aircrews how important it was to continue honing their skills so they’re ready to answer the call from combatant commanders at any time. The notion resonated with Senior Airman Coby, an MQ-9 sensor operator with the 15th Attack Squadron “Pigeons”.

“I thought it was pretty fun,” said Coby on his involvement in REAPER SMOKE. “We got to take a break from what our regular operations are at the squadron. When you look at the overall impact, it was very rewarding.”

Soon after, the crews circulated in and out of the base’s RPA simulator building. Each crew had loaded a pre-scripted mission for each to be graded equally on. This meant crews had to focus on operational planning prior to their missions, then had to perform as flawlessly as possible on coordinating a simulated strike. Lastly, crews would be graded on the accuracy of their strike, with evaluators capturing scores behind the scenes.

And with a final score of 65 out of 160, this year’s REAPER SMOKE top crew was Capt. Spencer and Tech. Sgt. Nick, representing the 138th Attack Squadron with the New York Air National Guard.

REAPER SMOKE was also a bit of a reunion for many pilots and sensor operators, as crews from coast-to-coast interacted with one another, sharing stories and learning from each other along the way.

“I have seen people I went to [Initial Qualification Training] with at other squadrons who went to other bases,” Coby said. “In talking to them, it’s been crazy to hear about the different experiences we’ve already had in such a short amount of time.”

Commenting on the impact of the exercise, Hammons believes the REAPER SMOKE exercise aims to accomplish three critical areas for the RPA community: hone skills, build camaraderie, and bring together RPA Airmen as a tightknit community.

“First and foremost, REAPER SMOKE allows us to hone some of the tactical acumen our crews have that are inherent to their training programs. But then we have an opportunity to take that training to another level in a friendly competition event, and I believe competition builds a great deal of camaraderie. You’re going to walk away meeting people in the RPA enterprise you’ve never worked with before. You’re going to have conversations about what one base is doing that no one else was tracking, and that’s exactly how we start building out advanced tactics, techniques and procedures. And third, it’s a way for the community to come together and celebrate our victories and our losses and figure out, as a community, just how to be better.”

Brent made it clear REAPER SMOKE wasn’t just about being a tactical competition. It was about growing the RPA community.

“We want to keep growing our culture and our community. We want to keep making this a rewarding place for people to serve and excel,” he said. “The RPA Community is a privilege to be a part of and we want members to build authentic, sincere, and genuine relationships with one another and to take care of each other.

Next year’s REAPER SMOKE competition is slated to take place in Syracuse, N.Y.