It was nearly silent. As the diminutive General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper chortled its way across the demonstration box over Nellis AFB during the 2019 Aviation Nation airshow two weeks ago outside Las Vegas, something fascinating happened: the crowd got very quiet.
Air show fans used to ear-splitting Thunderbirds sneak-passes and air power demo pyrotechnics were struck by the stark contrast of the quiet little aircraft with the slowly turning four-bladed propeller that snuck into the airspace, made a single pass, and then silently faded off into the heat-haze of the secret test ranges to the north of Nellis from where it came. The fly-over, the first of its kind at Nellis, sent a collective shiver up air show viewers’ spines. It was a significant acknowledgement of the rapidly evolving and expanding role of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.
1st. Lt. Scalett Trujillo of the Air Combat Command 432nd Wing Public Affairs unit told The Aviationist.com, “This really was a unique event”. While Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or “RPA’s” (don’t call them “drones”) are commonplace in modern integrated air operations, they usually remain out of the public eye. This first-ever fly over at Aviation Nation was an interesting shift in that doctrine. Only a few other airshows around the world have featured flyovers with RPAs. According to the Air Force, the very first airshow demonstration of an MQ-9 Reaper RPA was in May 2016 at Cannon AFB in New Mexico. Since then, and until now, the aircraft have remained quietly out of the public eye.
The MQ-9 Reaper that performed the first-ever flyovers at Nellis during Aviation Nation was from the 489th Attack Squadron, a unit of the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech AFB in Nevada.
Lt. Trujillo told TheAviationist.com that “Two sets of air crew were prepped to fly each day for the flyby, and ultimately one crew controlled the aircraft as it flew over Nellis AFB each day at approximately 11 AM.”
The single MQ-9, flying without underwing stores, entered the demonstration area from the left of the crowd line, flying almost silently at approximately 800-1000 feet. At that altitude, the sound of the single Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine was barely audible as it slowly turned its four-bladed propeller. The aircraft made a single pass each day before exiting the show box to the right (west) and then executing a slow, slightly banking turn to the north as it flew back toward either Creech AFB or the northern test ranges for more flying.
Earlier in the week, while trying to spot activity on the outskirts of the massive 7,000 square miles of restricted military airspace, we watched two MQ-9s accompanied by an F-35A conducting some type of training or testing. Exactly what they were doing, we were unable to divine, but Reaper crews at Nellis during Aviation Nation told us that the RPAs work with manned aircraft like the F-35A “all the time”. The RPA crews visiting Nellis from Creech AFB told us that one possibility may have been training for “buddy lasing” or using a laser designator onboard the MQ-9 to mark targets and/or guide precision weapons for strikes by manned tactical aircraft. Whatever they are doing over the vast Nellis ranges, the Reapers have been very active, and with much more than just air show fly-bys.
Last month’s MQ-9 flyover at Nellis was just one of the unique features of Aviation Nation 2019. The show featured the new “Wraith” F-16 of the 64th Aggressor Squadron that has caused a sensation on social media. Also featured was the final flight demonstration for the popular first-ever F-35A Demo Team pilot, Maj. Andrew “Dojo” Olson, as he prepares to begin training his successor on the F-35A Demo Team to be named early in 2020.