Not long after a military drone crashed into Lake Ontario in November, the program that aircraft belonged to is getting a boost with funding from the 2014 defense spending bill signed into law last week. The money will go toward expanding a storage and maintenance facility at Fort Drum.
An Air National Guard unit based in Syracuse flies missions in Afghanistan, and trains active duty Air Force personnel to maintain and fly unmanned aerial vehicles, a program that’s drawn protests at Hancock Field.
During training missions, a crew at Fort Drum controls takeoff, then a pilot based in Syracuse takes over the flight.
The $4.7 million allocation will pay to double the size of the current facility at Fort Drum, and widen a taxiway to make the airfield more accessible from the hangars.
Major Sandy Stoquert is a spokeswoman for the 174th Attack Wing. She says the new hangar will bring all of the unit’s Fort Drum-based aircraft together in one facility.
"It’s going to allow us to do maintenance on all our aircraft, and we’re going to be able to vacate the facilities of the 10th Mountain Division we’ve been borrowing," she said.
The 174th Attack Wing flies MQ-9 Reapers, 35-foot-long aircraft with 66-foot wingspans that can fly at almost 300 miles per hour. They can stay in the air for long periods and are used for surveillance and attacks.
The Syracuse Guard unit has been flying them out of Fort Drum since October 2011, using Army facilities. In November, it opened its own hangar, which now houses two of the four Reapers it keeps at the Army post. The new hangar will accommodate the other two.
"We’ll have our aircraft in our own facility. It’s just going to be more convenient and more efficient," Stoquert said.
Stoquert says construction on the new hangar should start in late 2014.
The new facility is part of a flurry of activity around drones in the region. The Army Times newspaper reports the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum will soon get training on another kind of drone, the MQ-1 Grey Eagle. The Army is adding them to each of its divisions’ helicopter aviation brigades.
And a group of universities and defense contractors is hoping to have the region named one of six federally designated testing sites for commercial drones. If approved, they could be sharing military airspace over the Adirondacks by this summer.