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Air Guard moves closer to launching drones from Syracuse

Ryan Delaney
Air National Guard members prepare an MQ-9 Reaper drone for a taxi demonstation at Hancock Airfield in Syracuse.

A remotely-piloted military aircraft taxied around Hancock Airfield for the first time Tuesday.

Officers of the 174th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard are calling it a small step toward a goal they’ve had for five years: launching their MQ-9 Reaper drones from Syracuse.

"A milestone," albeit not a dramatic one, is what Col. Greg Semmel, the 174th's commander, said of the event. 

Right now, training flights for the 174th take off and land at Fort Drum's Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield in the North Country, but they do fly over parts of Syracuse once in the air.

One of the MQ-9s crashed last November into Lake Ontario while on such a training flight, because its navigation system failed in cold weather. The guard hasn't had any more problems with its navigation systems since, Semmel said.

Starting with Tuesday's taxi around Hancock Airfield, Semmel says they'll work up to actually taking off from the airport.

"[A] methodical, slow pace: walk before we run, to make sure that all aspects of the flying operations will be safe," he said. "And this is the logical first step, just start slow."

It will be another five months before such a flight takes place, Semmel estimates.

Launch and recovery of a drone from Hancock poses new challenges versus Fort Drum. The MQ-9 and its flight crew on the ground will now have to communicate with both civilian and military aircraft and traffic controllers.

"As we start flying operations, we will, again, small steps, work with the FAA to start just by flying in the local pattern," said Semmel. "What that would mean is just staying within a couple miles of the airfield here."

The drones that take off at Hancock will never carry weapons, Semmel said, and they won’t aim their powerful cameras at citizens.

The 174th converted from F-16 fighter jets to MQ-9s in 2009. They’ve been flying continuous support missions over Afghanistan. Semmel says their mission there is primary to provide aerial surveillance and they rarely fire missiles.