By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
Academy Public Affairs
Four juniors and 20 sophomores here received the first unmanned aerial systems-remotely piloted aircraft wings awarded in the school’s 55-year history during a function at the Dean’s Heritage House on Feb. 25.
Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould and Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the dean of the faculty, presented cadets with certificates and UAS-RPA scarves during the event.
“I’m thrilled to recognize the first class of cadets to graduate from Airmanship 200, Airmanship 201 and Airmanship 202 and become the catapult leaders for the UAS-RPA program at the Air Force Academy,” General Born said. “You are all pioneers.”
Cadets dined and spoke with Generals Gould and Born as well as attendees including retired Gen. James McCarthy, director of the Institute for Information Technology Applications; retired Lt. Gen. Ervin Rokke, president of the USAFA Endowment; Maj. Gen. James Poss, director of Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance strategy, integration and doctrine at the Pentagon; Mike Phillips, the executive director of Mission Analysis; Col. Paul Ackerman, the vice superintendent; Col. R.K. Williams, the acting commandant of cadets; Col. Dean Bushey, head of the Academy’s UAS-RPA program; Col. Patrick Moylan, commander of the 306th Flying Training Group, and others.
“I’ve been with RPA’s since the beginning,” General Poss said. “At first, it was tough going until we realized what a tremendous impact they could have on the application of air power. Now, we can’t build them fast enough to satisfy demand.”
The Air Force’s role in that history began in the mid- to late-1990s, awarding General Atomics a contract to build the first MQ-1 Predators for $3.2 million apiece. Teams with the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Air Station (now Creech AFB), Nev., flew MQ-1 Predators during Operation Allied Force in 1999. RPA mission frequency stepped up during Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 as the Air Force started deploying Predators in greater numbers to gather intelligence.
“Back then, we were doing good to get two Predators in the air for 20 hours a day,” he said.
The number of RPA missions leaped after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates demanded more ISR capability from the Air Force in June 2008. Today the Air Force flies approximately 40 combat air patrols 24 hours a day, seven days a week, primarily over Iraq and Afghanistan to provide persistent reconnaissance and strike capability. The Air Force is programmed to go to 50 CAPs and may go as high as 65, General Poss said.
“I’d tell you that you’re the wave of the future, but you’re not – you’re the wave of the present,” the general continued. “That’s the kind of impact you’re going to have.”
Cadet 2nd Class Jeff Nakayama, a native of Warner Robins, Ga., is one of the four juniors forming the Air Force Academy’s instructor pilot cadre and an economics major with Cadet Squadron 34. He is also the son of retired Col. Dave Nakayama, a 1976 Academy graduate. He first found out about the Academy’s UAS-RPA program through Cadet 2nd Class Bradley Sapper, an astronautical engineering major with CS 03.
Though he was unsure at first, he decided to join the program after participating in the soaring and parachuting programs.
“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s see what happens, and it took off from there,” he said.
The instructor pilots visited Nellis AFB and Creech AFB, Nev., in the summer of 2009, to learn more about RPAs in the operational Air Force.
“It was an interesting experience, seeing the operational side and watching Airmen actually conduct a mission out there,” Cadet Nakayama said. “We were able to go through the program first, experiment and spend a little more time on the airplane than the 2012 cadets did, and we got to teach them, which was the biggest challenge and learning experience.”
The program will take another step forward next year when the Academy acquires a ScanEagle, a 40-pound unmanned aircraft that launches from a hydraulic system similar to the catapult systems on aircraft carriers and “lands” using a skyhook and GPS guidance.
“Everyone’s going to be learning again,” Cadet Nakayama said.