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Because of the Total Force demand for their ISR and strike capabilities, the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) enterprise has been in around-the-clock combat for well over a decade. RPA maintainers have received the highest mission capable rating in the Air Force despite manning shortages, long hours and an ever-increasing ops tempo. (U.S. Air Force Video // Andrew Breese)

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.

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A dramatic sunset surrounds a drone parked on a tarmac
The sun rises over an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. The 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron supports the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron as well as the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons, enabling the graduation of pilots and sensor operators in support of the Air Force's largest formal training unit. Additionally, Airmen with the 49th AMS continuously deploy in support of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requirements.

Photo // J.M. Eddins Jr.

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.

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An airman works atop a drone aircraft
Senior Airman Todd Creamer, an MQ-9 crew chief with the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, performs maintenance on an MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft in a hangar at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. The squadron supports the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, as well as the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons, enabling the graduation of pilots and sensor operators in support of the Air Force's largest formal training unit.

Photo // J.M. Eddins Jr.

“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.

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Airmen work underneath a drone aircraft
Airman 1st Class Roberto Ruiz and Airman 1st Class Andrew Frano, an MQ-9 crew chief with the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, perform a post-flight inspection of an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Dec. 19, 2016. The squadron supports the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, as well as the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons, enabling the graduation of pilots and sensor operators in support of the Air Force's largest formal training unit.

Photo // J.M. Eddins Jr.

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.”

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Typical day on the Ramp at Kandahar AB Afghanistan for the 62 Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron and maintainers from the 451 AEW/MXG, during the surge from of 2010-2011. USAF and RAF operators and maintainers sustained 24/7 combat operations supporting 21 combat sorties of MQ-9's and MQ-1's per day at Kandahar with an additional 12 MQ-1 combat sorties at two other locations - Jalalabad and Shindand. (photo courtesy Col. Braxton Rehm)

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.”

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A female airman works on the tail section of a large drone aircraft
Airman 1st Class Francis Palacio, an MQ-9 assistant dedicated crew chief, inspects an MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft in the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron hanger at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. The squadron supports the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron as well as the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons, enabling the graduation of pilots and sensor operators in support of the Air Force's largest Formal Training Unit. Additionally, the Airmen of the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron continuously deploy in support of Combatant Commanders' armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requirements.

Photo // J.M. Eddins Jr.

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.

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A man speaks to a group of seated airmen and points to a projection screen
Chief Master Sgt. Seth L. Rector gives a briefing to remotely piloted aircraft pilots outlining the manning challenges facing the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. The squadron supports the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, as well as the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons, enabling the graduation of pilots and sensor operators in support of the Air Force's largest formal training unit.

Photo // J.M. Eddins Jr.

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.

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An airman works on the propeller of a drone aircraft
Airman 1st Class James Spence, an MQ-9 crew chief, uses his radio to direct MQ-9 Reaper pilots as they taxi their aircraft back to shelters on the flightline of Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Dec. 19, 2016. The squadron supports the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, as well as the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons, enabling the graduation of pilots and sensor operators in support of the Air Force's largest formal training unit.

Photo // J.M. Eddins Jr.

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.

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A group of men walks by a large drone aircraft
Lt. Col. Rehm on the ramp at Kandahar AB, Afghanistan, briefing the French Minister of Defense on RPA capabilities and operations. An RAF MQ-9 assigned to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron is being prepared for a combat sortied in the background. Due to the high interests there were a large amount of Congressional, military and civilian defense visitors to the 62 ERS.

photo courtesy Col. Braxton Rehm

“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.”