Guard makes progress in switch to unmanned aircraft


Brianne Pfannenstiel

The 132nd Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard is ahead of schedule as it transitions to a focus on remotely piloted aircraft, Guard leaders told Gov. Terry Branstad on Tuesday.

Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds were on hand to tour the space and learn about the changes launched two years ago.

The unit, which has been piloting traditional aircraft for 72 years, began a complete transformation to focus on unmanned aircraft — a switch that required the retraining of about 600 airmen.

“We’ve gotten through the denial and anger and all that, and we are at a very exciting place in our unit’s history,” said Wing Commander Col. Kevin Heer.

Heer said the unit has begun construction on more than $20 million worth of facilities renovations and has completed the first of three phases of construction.

In a typical year, he said, the wing would do about 270 off-base training events. In the last 20 months, they’ve completed about 1,300 of them in order to give airmen the high-tech skills they need to pilot unmanned aircraft, lead cyber ops missions and provide targeting surveillance.

Mike Barton, operation support squadron commander, said they’re careful to emphasize the word “pilot” in that sentence. The planes they operate aren’t drones, he said, which are pre-programmed to carry out the mission. Pilots in Iowa operate MQ-9 aircraft in real time, even though the planes themselves may be located halfway across the world.

“We take a lot of pride in knowing that our crew … is sitting in the station operationally flying that airplane, guiding it, telling it what to do, guiding the ball,” he said. “And we’re in control of the scenario and what’s going on.”

Since the unit has been flying remotely piloted aircraft, they’ve executed more than 700 missions, said Col. Greg Hapgood, Iowa National Guard public affairs director. Some have involved using weapons on an enemy combatant, but the vast majority are focused on gathering intelligence, he said.

The changes ultimately will benefit Iowa as a whole, Guard leaders said Tuesday, by drawing highly skilled Guard members who can also contribute to the state’s tech economy, or vice versa.

“Our airmen currently are learning skills that are going to significantly contribute to Iowa’s high-tech industry, and we’re going to leverage the existing civilian skills to help those people put a uniform on and serve their nation and state,” Heer said. “The bottom line: This conversion has significantly increased the value that we contribute to both our state and nation.”