By GORDON BLOCK
SYRACUSE — Crews from the New York Air National Guard began flying its MQ-9 Reaper drone from Syracuse Hancock International Airport, ending their exclusive flights at Fort Drum.
The flight by the 174th Attack Wing came after years of petitioning to federal officials.
The unit is now the first in America to fly drones in class “C” airspace, an airspace from ground level to 4,000 feet that is common around commercial airports. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the flights last week.
The change is expected to save approximately $1 million annually in costs for driving personnel from Syracuse to Fort Drum’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, and lost training time during inclement weather.
Unit officials have said that Fort Drum would still be needed for the unit’s armed training missions.
“Fort Drum and WSAAF will continue to play a vital role in the training of our service members so that we can provide combat air power to combatant commanders overseas while protecting our troops,” said Maj. Sandra D. Stoquert, unit spokesman, in an email to the Times. “We have a long history of having a strong relationship and we look forward to continuing this into the future.”
The Guard unit has flown at Fort Drum’s airfield since October 2011, with locally based crew members remotely operating the drones during takeoff and landing and Syracuse-based pilots taking over via satellite once in the air. Maintenance of the aircraft also has been done at the local airfield.
Since December 2012, the unit has been cleared to perform armed missions with the aircraft at Fort Drum’s ranges. The wing loads the 10,500-pound Reaper aircraft with 500-pound laser-guided bombs for training.
The Fort Drum-area Reaper mission has about 25 to 30 airmen, who Guard officials have said would move to Hancock if such a switch were to take place.
The unit has received about $10 million for hangar facilities for its Reapers on the post.
If the Air National Guard change moves more flights to Syracuse, the area will still have a drone presence.
Last July, the Army activated a company of soldiers flying the service’s smaller Gray Eagle drone.