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556th TES successfully launch, land first Creech AFB ATLC test

An MQ-9 Reaper flies over the base.

An U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper performs an automated takeoff at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Feb. 26, 2021. The Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC) is possible through software enhancements, which allow the pilot to activate and monitor a pre-planned mission profile. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard)

Maintainers oversee pre-flight checks.

U.S. Air Force maintainers from the 432nd Maintenance Group prepare an MQ-9 Reaper to takeoff via the Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC) at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Feb. 26, 2021. The ATLC is being pursued in order to provide enhanced capabilities to forward deployed locations via more agile launch and recovery (LRE) operations, faster employment of RPA assets, and a reduced manpower footprint, which ultimately ensures more Airmen are kept out of harm’s way. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard)

An MQ-9 sits on the flightline.

An U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper is parked on the flight line before making history at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Feb. 26, 2021. The 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron successfully performed the first Air Combat Command test of an automatic takeoff and landing at Creech AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --

The 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron recently completed the first Air Combat Command test of the Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC) for the MQ-9 Reaper at Creech AFB, Feb. 26, 2021.

Originally tested by the Air Force Lifecycle Management Office in October 2020, this is the first test executed by operational test pilots.

True to name, ATLC allows crews to take off and land the Reaper automatically, which will reduce the need for hand-flown takeoff and landings. ATLC is possible through software enhancements, which allow the pilot to activate and monitor a pre-planned mission profile.

The success of these tests were a marked milestone toward reaching the desired end-state of combat Airmen of the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing: To provide enhanced capabilities to forward deployed locations via more agile launch and recovery (LRE) operations, faster employment of RPA assets, and a reduced manpower footprint, which ultimately ensures more Airmen are kept out of harm’s way.

Lt. Col. (Ret) Keith Turner, 556th TES lead test pilot, said he was glad to see the ATLC implemented; even though more testing and training is required before it is fully mission capable and realized operationally in its desired end-state. This test was a key initial step in that process and will now accelerate the MQ-9 towards its goal to fundamentally change how it conducts operations.

“This summer we’re testing the next software drop, and we’ll be doing a thorough test for the automatic takeoff and land,” Keith said. “Soon after that, we’ll start practicing with mission crews who fly through the satellite [connection], as opposed to those of us who fly through the direct line-of-sight frequencies.

“Physically it would be capable by the end of this year,” he continued.

However, it will ultimately take a synchronized effort to accelerate the fielding of ATLC in order to ensure crews receive training, both in maintenance and operations, and truly be operational. Currently, both aircrew and maintenance are readily trained to deploy for the launch and recovery missions downrange, but once ready to shift to ATLC, LRE aircrew can anticipate a decreased demand for those deployments.

“ATLC will reduce the 432nd Wing’s deployed footprint, and will create a fundamental change in our force presentation,” said Maj. Alexander, 432nd Operations Group chief of standardization and evaluations. “We will be a more compact and agile force, making it harder for adversaries to target us.”

The agility of the force will play a critical role as the 432nd WG/432nd AEW leans into ACE concepts for future fights. The more compact the airpower package, the more flexible the Hunters will be to employ Reapers anywhere the mission demands, at any time.

Members of the 556th TES have been working with General Atomics, Air Combat Command, and the 432nd Operations Group to make auto takeoff and landing a success here at Creech AFB.

Many months of planning, coordination, and training went into making these tests possible.

The biggest challenge and opportunity? Terrain.

“I worked directly with General Atomics to create a pattern here at Creech,” said Eric Christensen, 556th TES unit project officer. “There’s a lot of mountains around the airfield, so I worked with them to create a pattern that will keep the aircraft safe from the terrain.”

Ultimately, one of the truest tests of autonomy are the adaptation capability of the program to various landscape challenges. The team knew if they could overcome this, then they would be able to implement ATLC almost anywhere.

The future of the 432nd WG/432nd AEW’s utility of ATLC is yet realized; however, the Hunters stand able and ready to adapt for more agile combat employment on behalf of combatant commanders.

This test is the latest of MQ-9 advancement efforts conducted by the 53rd Wing’s 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron. In September 2020, the 556th TES conducted operational test and tactics development sorties that showcase the Reaper’s ability to carry eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, reinforcing the platform’s “persistent attack” role, as well as took a large stride forward for the MQ-9’s relevance in Great Power Competition when they successfully engaged a surrogate cruise missile with an AIM-9X during the Advanced Battle Management System Demo 2.