82nd ATRS rescues aerial targets

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Betty Chevalier
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

As the Department of Defense maintains combat readiness, units have the opportunity to fire live missiles in the Gulf Range Complex, perfecting their skills by targeting subscale and full-scale aerial targets. But what happens to the drones after they land in the Gulf? The 82nd Aerial Target Squadron is charged with patrolling the water, retrieving the target, and returning it back to Tyndall Air Force Base.

To accomplish this, the 82nd ATRS watercraft section manages three Missile Retriever boats that are equipped with cranes and trained divers specializing in locating and recovering the targets.

“The watercraft mission is unique in the fact that they are the only watercraft fleet in the U.S. Air Force,” stated Lt. Col. Dennis Simerly, 82nd ATRS director of operations. “Without the watercraft mission, the 82nd ATRS would not be able to support developmental tests and operational evaluations of the current and future missile systems.”

Along with recovering the aerial targets, 82nd ATRS watercraft ensure targets can launch safely, clearing beachgoers and boaters who may be in the areas below the immediate path, also known as the launch corridor, located around Crooked Island Sound.

“The watercraft division uses utility boats to clear the bay just south of the Tyndall drone-way and sub-scale launch pad in case of an emergency after takeoff,” explained Simerly. “The Missile Retriever clears the area roughly 10 miles south into the Gulf of Mexico.”

Tyndall and the Air Force strive to be good stewards to the community and the environment. Picking up the aerial targets not only saves tax dollars but prevents civilian vessels from damage if an encounter were to occur. Capt. Rich Hall, 82nd ATRS Watercraft Operations Officer, explained crews will travel nearly 250 nautical miles if needed to collect a target. The only targets not collected are ones deemed destroyed by the mission commander or a supporting surveillance aircraft.

“We are told the latitude and longitude coordinates of where the target landed in the gulf,” Hall said. “We have to be outside the target’s track so we cannot see it landing. There is a transponder built into the target, much like a homing beacon. It starts beeping as we get closer and closer.”

While measures such as the coordinates and beacons are in place to ease the crew’s ability to find the target, Hall explained if the target lands upside down in the water or the target is compromised, the beacon will not ping as it should, and the crew takes a more traditional search approach.

“If [the target] is upside down, then it’s really visual,” Hall said. “You’ll have four or five crew members in the bow of the boat with binoculars looking for an orange thing in a sea of blue or gray with a parachute attached to it.”

The 82nd ATRS watercraft enables the success of the Weapons System Evaluation Program with the repossession of the aerial targets. Spending up to 12 hours on a 120-foot vessel in an unpredictable ocean is not a standard Air Force mission, but the 82nd ATRS supports aerial training in a unique way.

“The watercraft mission is showcased in their ability to recover all sub-scale aerial targets lost in the Gulf of Mexico,” Simerly said. “Whether the targets are damaged from missile impact or deliberately placed in the parachute by the controllers, the Missile Retriever [crew] recovers 100% of them. Each sub-scale aerial target is valued over a million dollars, so the ability to regenerate them once recovered saves the government millions per year.”