Coming to the skies of Fargo-Moorhead: military drones

Reaper Aircraft Flies Without Pilot From Creech AF
An MQ-9 Reaper flies on a training mission in this 2007 file photo from Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images file

North Dakota National Guard flight crews in Fargo fly unmanned aircraft in military action across the globe, but until now their neighbors haven't had a chance to witness those drones in action.

That will change this summer when two of the MQ-9 Reaper aircraft will be based in Fargo for the first time.

Crews have been traveling to locations across the country for training that requires them to be in proximity to the Reapers, said 119th Wing Commander Col. Britt Hatley.

"A lot of our members are what is known as drill status guardsmen or traditional members who work part time. So when we ask them to go to other locales in the United States that takes them away from their primary jobs. That is a concern to us," said Hatley. "So getting those resources here allows those folks to train here locally."

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The drones will practice take offs and landings at the Fargo airport.

Other training will happen in military airspace located near Devils Lake, N.D. The Federal Aviation Administration will require a manned chase plane to accompany the drone from Fargo to the training site.

Hatley said he hopes the drones will also be a recruiting tool, much like the fighter aircraft the Fargo-based Happy Hooligans flew for decades.

"I can't tell you how many members I've encountered who said growing up, 'I would see those airplanes and that's what started me on the path,'" Hatley recalled. "I fully expect young kids these days to see that and be curious about it and ask about it. And I hope they do. And I hope they call."

The Fargo National Guard unit has about 1,100 members. It's also adding staff for a recently created intelligence squadron.

While the Air Force has had some difficulty retaining unmanned aircraft pilots, but that hasn't been a problem in Fargo.

"We have come upon a pattern of operations that allows our operators to have a significantly better quality of life than maybe some of our active duty counterparts have," said Hatley.

He said crews at the Fargo base typically keep two unmanned aircraft flying 24 hours a day somewhere in the world.