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Drone hangar officially opens at Fort Drum airfield

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FORT DRUM — As a new multimillion-dollar hangar for unmanned aircraft opened at the post’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, state Air National Guard officials said the investment was a sign they will remain on post well into the future.

“We’re going to be operating out of here as long as any of us are around,” said Maj. Gen. Verle Johnston, the New York Air National Guard’s commander.

The new hangar will be used by the 174th Attack Wing, which is based at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, to house two of its MQ-9 Reaper drones. According to the unit, the $5,194,860 facility took nine months to build and will house two of the aircraft within 12,000 square feet of storage space. Prior to the opening, the wing’s three Reapers have been housed in a temporary structure next to the airfield’s rapid deployment center.

Though its place at the post’s airfield appears to be set, the hangar opening comes as the unit looks to expand its ability to take off and land out of the Syracuse airport. In September, Col. Greg A. Semmel, the attack wing’s commander, told the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority that expanding Reaper operations to Syracuse would save $1 million per year through reductions in scrapped missions and travel costs.

On Tuesday, Col. Semmel said the goal is for the change to happen at some point next year, but it will depend on Federal Aviation Administration approval to do so. Though he did not have specific numbers for how many of the unit’s missions will shift to Syracuse, Col. Semmel said that at least one-fifth of the unit’s training work required the ranges and airspace provided around the post, and that other responsibilities also would require it to keep a presence at the airfield.

The hangar opening today is the first part of a planned two-part hangar development project. The 2014 defense authorization bill, which is still working its way through Congress, includes money for a $4.7 million two-bay expansion of the hangar that will house the unit’s third and future fourth aircraft. Multiple speakers during the ceremony said they were optimistic that such a project could be taken on by 2015.

The unit has operated MQ-9 Reapers at Fort Drum’s airfield since October 2011, with locally based crew members remotely operating the drones during takeoff and landing and Syracuse-based pilots taking over via satellite once the drones are in the air. Maintenance of the aircraft also has been done at the local airfield.

During his remarks, Col. Semmel pointed out that in October the Air Force marked 2 million flight hours for its MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft since its launch in the mid-1990s. That same month, the unit reported reaching its 2,000 hour of flight hours with its aircraft at the post’s airfield.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo praised the hangar project in a statement released Tuesday morning.

“This new hangar is a real asset in improving the training and operations of the New York Air National Guard at Fort Drum,” Gov. Cuomo said. “This permanent facility provides the 174th Attack Wing with enough space to shelter its aircraft and more effectively train service members from across the country for overseas operations and domestic emergencies. As the major storms from the last few years have shown us, the National Guard is vital to New York State in responding to a natural disaster. Furthermore, this green facility will also reduce the use of energy to save taxpayer dollars in the long run, exemplifying our state’s goal to dramatically increase energy efficiency in the next several years. The completion of this project will result in a stronger Fort Drum and enhance the security of our nation.”

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