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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press Writer, Published October 11 2010

Workload of North Dakota drone pilots examined

A North Dakota Air National Guard unit whose airmen once roared over the city in fighter jets and walked the streets in uniform is now the invisible force. But the group needs visible support, a congressman says.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., told witnesses at a Senate field hearing in Grand Forks last month that members of the new unmanned aerial systems unit have shown impressive results while remotely flying drones that are based in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he wonders about the workload.

“The tasking in Fargo has been very heavy. I’m worried about the human toll it’s taking,” Pomeroy said during a meeting to discuss freeing up airspace in northeast North Dakota to train drone pilots.

Pilots from the Fargo base fly the Predator drone, which is equipped with cameras, sensors, radar and missiles. It has a top speed of about 135 mph. Pilots operate the plane with a keyboard and joystick while watching a video screen.

Pomeroy said in an interview last week that the Fargo unit is holding up well in the short term despite long hours and repeated shifts. More training and more crews are needed to keep the airmen fresh, he said.

“The incredible pressure they have to make sure they’re getting it right is something that’s not known to anyone else going to work in Fargo-Moorhead on a given day,” Pomeroy said. “What are the long-term consequences of this kind of stress? We don’t know.”

Brig. Gen. L. Scott Rice said at the Grand Forks hearing that the National Guard operates remotely piloted aircraft from six states and represents about 25 percent of the unmanned fleet. The Air Force has more than tripled the number of unmanned planes in the last two years, he said.

“The rapid growth rate is outpacing our training pipelines and exponentially increasing our need for more home station training,” Rice said.

Col. Rick Gibney, commander of the Fargo base, declined to grant an interview but acknowledged some of the job’s demands in a statement.

“All training requires our airmen to travel to bases with aircraft and, particularly, airspace to train, and this adds to the normal stresses with separation from families and civilian jobs and the finances associated with off-station training,” Gibney said in a statement.

The Fargo Air Guard flew fighter planes for about 60 years. The group that in the early 1960s was tabbed the “Happy Hooligans” won several flying awards and a safety record of more than 70,000 hours without a major accident. But its pilots rarely flew in harm’s way.

The unit switched to unmanned systems and transport planes when the government decided to shut down or rearrange several bases about five years ago. The last four F-16s in the Fargo unit were flown to a military boneyard in Arizona in 2007.

“We had a glamorous training mission,” Pomeroy said. “It was exciting seeing the F-16s over the skies of Fargo. The flyers loved flying them and the maintainers loved maintaining them.”

“On the other hand, it was largely a training and reserve role. They now find themselves on the virtual front line,” he said.

Longtime Fargo businessman Dick Walstad, who led civilian efforts to save the base, said many residents miss the excitement of the fighter planes. But he said their demise was inevitable and that pursuing the unmanned mission was the right move.

“The Air Force used to have, like, 3,000 fighter planes, and that has been reduced to something like 1,500,” Walstad said. “We’ve got newer, better fighter planes that are more efficient and do more. There just aren’t too many air forces in the world who want to tangle with us. We’re running out of opponents.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, who was the North Dakota National Guard commander during the base realignment process, said he talks with Guard soldiers on a regular basis. He said one former F-16 pilot told him that flying jets was fun but the drone mission is more rewarding.

“Every one (of) these guys I talk to says the same thing: ‘I am saving soldiers’ lives every day,’ ” Haugen said.

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