Staff Sgt. Todd Creamer joined the Air Force to work on aircraft and travel the world. He enlisted with a guaranteed mechanical job hoping to work on fighter jets or, possibly, bombers.
While at his 18-day technical training school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Creamer was given orders containing his Air Force Specialty Code and aircraft designation. In place of an aircraft name, however, was the letter “N.”
“I began to the think the “N” stood for “nothing” because neither my classmates nor technical instructors knew what it meant,” Creamer said.
It wasn’t until he arrived for his assignment with the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, where he learned the “N” stood for the MQ-9 Reaper, one of the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft.
Creamer was the first MQ-9 Dedicated Crew Chief to arrive at the 49th AMXS direct from technical training in 2012. Since then he has been able to travel to different places, but they all look the same.
“My world travels have consisted of three tours to Afghanistan. We deploy and come home back to the deserts of Holloman and then six months later it’s back to Afghanistan,” Creamer said. “Our duty locations for active duty consist of New Mexico, Nevada and Afghanistan, all deserts and in many ways they all look the same.”
Remotely piloted aircraft maintainers support a unique mission where the aircraft are able to fly around the clock. Because of this capability, RPAs are requested by combatant commanders around the world every day to support combat and surveillance operations.
“The community has been in the fight constantly since 9/11 without a dwell (a longer down time between deployments) other career fields have been provided,” said Col. Braxton Rehm, director of the Air Force Defense Sensitive Support. “The demand has increased because of the demonstrated capabilities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. We are key players in the joint/coalition team taking the fight to ISIS and the regional combatant commanders love what our Airman provide and they want more.”
Within the RPA community, this high operations tempo has been dubbed the “unquenchable thirst.”
It’s nowhere near being satisfied, either. Demand for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper has never been higher.
Rehm, who began his career as a B-1B Lancer maintenance officer, transitioned to piloting the F-16 before becoming an MQ-1/9 pilot who flew missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also served as a group commander at Creech AFB, Nevada, and knows firsthand the challenges of maintaining the RPA enterprise.
“We really haven’t truly had, in our Air Force lineage, an aircraft which is able to remain airborne and conduct missions this long. So the demand for a pilot, sensor operator and maintainers is high,” Rehm said.
This demand is taking a toll, too. Increased operations combined with the stressors of a constant deployment cycle and lack of quality family time has led to the RPA community having the lowest retention rates for aircraft maintainers across Air Combat Command.
According to ACC manpower, MQ-1 and 9 crew chiefs are 60 percent manned at the enlisted three- to five-levels and 46 percent manned for experienced seven-level maintainers.
However, some of these numbers are due to personnel cuts made over the last few years.
“Unfortunately force shaping has cut the maintenance community a little bit heavier than anticipated,” said Chief Master Sgt. Seth Rector, chief of maintenance policy and procedures for ACC. “It’s known that across the board for maintenance we are about 4,000 maintainers short right now.”
Before moving to ACC at Langley AFB, Virginia, Rector served as the superintendent of the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Holloman for the MQ-1/9 aircraft. He managed the undermanned maintenance manpower for a unit with a 365 percent increase in flight training sorties in the last six years.
“There is no down time at home or deployed,” Creamer said. “We support 24/7 operations. Sometimes it feels like you can’t catch your breath and you know you’re not leaving.”
When they are not deployed supporting combat operations and maintaining an aircraft fleet with a rapid operational tempo, RPA crew chiefs are also responsible for training the next generation of maintainers.
The loss of senior maintainers has also left those still on the flightline with a larger group of trainees to develop. Five years ago, Creamer had two to three trainees under him, now he’s responsible for eight to ten.
These issues aren’t going unnoticed, either, and solving them is a key focal point for Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein and key leadership in the RPA enterprise. These leaders are working to expand the RPA enterprise from an aircrew and maintenance personnel perspective and give Airmen a break from their time in combat and to provide opportunities for additional training, upgrades and personal time outside of the 24/7 work schedule, said Rehm.
A Culture and Process Improvement Program was established in 2015 to target and develop methods of improvement for concerns identified by the Airmen and family members in the MQ-1/9 career fields. The CPIP presented a holistic approach to recognizing where enhancements needed to be made in both work environments and overall quality of life.
Out of recommendations from the CPIP initiative, decisions were made to expand basing options for RPA maintainers and operators to live and work.
“Air Force leadership is actively engaged in finding solutions for the long term health of the RPA enterprise, specifically the MQ-1/9 community, that addresses the quality of life and geographical location issues outlined through the CPIP,” Rehm said.
In January, Shaw AFB, South Carolina, was selected as a preferred location to base a new MQ-9 Reaper group for mission control elements. Air Force leaders are also considering another location in the southern United States or on the West Coast to host a MQ-9 wing that includes 24 Reapers, launch and recovery elements, a mission control element, a maintenance group and support personnel.
Also, a selective re-enlistment bonus for RPA maintenance has been established to help retention efforts.
“The biggest advice I would give my youngest Airman that have come in is patience,” Rector said.
He added that everything is cyclical and the mission is top priority.
“One thing I’ve seen throughout my career no matter where I’ve deployed or what the mission was, everywhere I’ve gone the Airman on the flightline will always get it done at whatever cost,” Rector said.
While Creamer is planning on separating from the Air Force, he is grateful to see the Air Force working toward the future. He knows solving the stress on the career field will take time and in the interim he and his fellow maintainers will continue to get the job done.
“We maintainers have a lot of pride in what we do. Even with the shortage of people and the tempo of how we work, our fully mission capable rating is bar none to any other aircraft in the Air Force,” he said. “Knowing we do a lot of damage to some really bad people and we get to see the outcome of what we support with the MQ-9 helps me wake up and be gung-ho to get the mission done.”