Local pilots are within months of flying remotely piloted aircraft thousands of miles away from the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base.
On Saturday military and community officials opened a 24,700 square foot remodeled building which will house the the 110 Operations Group at the base to fly the aircraft, commonly called drones.
For the last three and a half years, 17 three-person crews have been training and flying missions from other bases in the United States but will begin in February to pilot the aircraft from Battle Creek.
"This kind of marks the beginning of the final phase," said Colonel Bryan Teff, base commander.
About 200 people attended a dedication of the new facility, which is housed in a former supply building and warehouse on the base but has undergone a $6.4 million remodeling project.
Between now and early next year additional equipment will be installed as the building is fitted for the flying mission.
Teff said the Battle Creek crews have flown 5,050 missions including 40 strikes since 2014 from several other bases. The MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, about the size of the A-10 Thunderbolt which was flown in Battle Creek until 2009, is used for reconnaissance as well as air to ground missile strikes.
Teff said crews will continue to fly missions from other bases until the facility in Battle Creek is operating.
Both Michigan Democratic Senator Gary Peters and Republican Congressman Fred Upton attended along with members of the state legislature and Battle Creek city officials.
"This operation is going to be a significant contribution to world security," Peters said. "We are celebrating this transition to one of the most innovative, cutting edge and in-demand missions in the military right now."
Several speakers noted that the Air Guard Base was in 2005 on a list military installations targeted for closure.
"Our congressional delegation is doing what we can to protect this base from closure," Upton said. "This is a place we know can continue to grow."
The MQ-9 Reaper unit is one of 12 in the Air National Guard. The aircraft has a wing span of 66 feet and can fly at 240 knots at about 20,000 feet for nearly 20 hours. The actual planes are located overseas and are launched and recovered by crews on site. Once airborne the planes are flown remotely by pilots at facilities in at the Air Guard Base in Battle Creek.
About 200 people are assigned to the local MQ-9 unit.
Battel Creek Enquirer