Final Curtain Call

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Crystal Housman
  • 163d Attack Wing Public Affairs

“It’s a labor of love,” Chief Master Sgt. Ronnie said as he looked across the Predator Bay at March Air Reserve Base Sept. 29. The room, once home to an MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft used for hands-on maintenance training, was instead full of chairs as personnel gathered to formally close and bid farewell to the 163d Attack Wing’s formal training detachment (FTD).


Officially chartered as Air Education and Training Command, Formal Training Detachment 26, the FTD taught remotely piloted aircraft maintenance to more than a thousand active duty, guard, and reserve Airmen during the course of its 10-year history.


“We all started working on this project in 2006,” Ronnie said.


At that time, the wing began the process of converting from the KC-135 tanker mission to the MQ-1 reconnaissance mission.


In order to transition from the 163d Air Refueling Wing to the 163d Reconnaissance Wing, the wing’s maintainers needed to retrain on the new remotely piloted aircraft platform.

In March 2006, the wing hosted a Basic Instructor Course to train the initial cadre of FTD instructors. Three months later, ten instructors from that class were then sent to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to learn the MQ-1 platform hands-on with the ultimate goal of setting up a field training detachment at March, Ronnie said.


“It was decided the best course of action was to set up an FTD at March in order to organically train our maintenance personnel,” Ronnie said.


At Creech, they trained in ground control station communications, avionics, and crew chief Air Force Specialty Codes. Afterward, the instructors stayed in Nevada and taught for a year and a half at Detachment 13, which helped reduce the backlog of students waiting for MQ-1 maintenance training and established a foundation to stand up an FTD at the 163d.


In March 2008, the cadre returned to southern California and focused on preparing for the first wave of students to come through the March FTD.


“It was a really big project to set up classes,” Ronnie said.


They started out in the base’s Pride hangar and in an old simulator building, all the while working under the umbrella of Detachment 13.

On January 1, 2009, Order G-08-50 was published – officially activating Detachment 26 at March ARB, using personnel from the 163d Attack Wing with curriculum implementation and oversight from the 372nd Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.


They taught a variety of classes including Predator introduction, tactical aircraft maintenance, avionics, ground control station, instructional systems development, and technical writing courses, among others.


Along the way, building 2315 was renovated and all aspects of teaching were centralized to the same facility.


“We had classrooms in here and started teaching in here,” Ronnie said. “That’s when [the detachment] finally started kicking in.”


The New York Air National Guard’s 174th Maintenance Squadron visited March in 2011, paving the way for their own FTD specializing in the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft.

The 163d FTD team led the way as the 163d Reconnaissance Wing again prepared for redesignation to the 163d Attack Wing and added MQ-9s to its fleet.


163d instructors traveled to New York to train on the Reaper platform, switching roles as their former students became their instructors.


“We started in the beginning,” Ronnie said. “The people we’ve trained we see everywhere; but they all started here in the FTD.”


After training in New York, Detachment 26 added a suite of MQ-9 maintenance classes to the FTD including MQ-9 introduction, commons, crew chief, avionics, weapons and principles of instruction.


“We were really on the leading edge,” Ronnie said. “We trained everyone up and it went from there.”


A little more than ten years after it started, Detachment 26 logged more than 33,000 hours of instruction throughout during over 350 classes and trained over 1,100 students.


Many of the 163d FTD instructors earned Master Instructor certification during their time in the unit, with some logging over 7,000 teaching hours each.


As training of remotely piloted aircraft maintainers consolidated to a single location on each coast, Detachment 26 shuttered its doors, but its impact will be felt for years.


“It’s a pretty big ripple effect,” Ronnie said. “We have a big part in this community.”

Detachment 26’s impact goes far beyond the classroom and can be felt in combat zones, said Lt. Col. Kenneth Shinn, who serves as the 372nd Training Squadron Commander at Sheppard AFB.


“There is a battlefield Airman out there right now who has an aircraft overhead because the maintainers who put it in the air would not have had the skillsets to get it in the air had it not been for the competence and capability these folks were able to pass on,” Shinn said.


That is not lost on Ronnie.


“We’re all just really proud to have been a part of the RPA training,” he said.

At the closing ceremony, Ronnie pauses once more. 


Across the room, instructors who have dispersed to other areas of the wing and country since the Detachment’s last class came through are giving each other hugs and sharing stories.


“It’s only been a few months since we all went out to our separate jobs,” Ronnie said, “but you miss it.”