FORT RILEY — A company-sized unit that will operate the latest in unmanned aircrafts was activated here Thursday.
F Company 1st Aviation Regiment, which has 128 soldiers, became officially active on March 16, but the activation ceremony served as a symbolic marker of their arrival.
The company is one of only two extended branch, multi-purpose unmanned aircraft system companies in the U.S. Army. The other is located at Fort Hood, Texas
The company will be charged with operating the Gray Eagle, an unmanned aircraft with a 56 ft. 3 in. wingspan that’s 27 ft. long.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeffrey Stokes, the company commander, called the aircraft impressive with its long flight time. “I think it’s going to be something the Army can use for years to come,” he said.
Stokes said it’s a fully automated aircraft that “flies itself almost.” That, he said, is an improvement on some unmanned aircrafts, where “you got a whole chain of people in the process.”
Col. Mike Morgan, commander of the 1st Combat Aviation brigade the company is assigned to, said the Gray Eagle allows ground forces to move farther and faster while providing pictures for commanders to make more informed decisions and gain critical insight. “This is part of a surgical, responsible, professional force that we have in our Army today,” he said.
Morgan said this is a major milestone in the history of Ft. Riley. “It’s part of what will make the 1st Cab the most modernized and best trained cab in the Army,” Morgan said.
Morgan said the Gray Eagle and Apache Block III attack helicopter, which the Eagle will communicate with on the battlefield, would be tested and fielded within the next year.
This is all part of preparation of the 1st Combat Aviation brigade late-summer 2013 deployment to Afghanistan. It would follow an almost two-and-a-half year rest from deployment. The 1st Combat Aviation brigade spent 15 months in Iraq followed by a year and two month break before a year-long deployment to Iraq, which ended in 2011.
“During that time, the Army expects a lot of us to fully modernize, become the best trained, train more ground forces than anyone else,” Morgan said.
In September, there are three options for the Gray Eagle after the company’s Initial Operation Test Evaluation, which will introduce the aircraft into Army inventory and occurs in July and August. The Army will either send it to Ft. Riley, keep it at Edwards Air Force Base in California or potential pack-up for deployment.
1st Sgt. Leon Black said the company has the best of the operators who have been transferred to work with the Gray Eagle. “We have the best guys and girls in our formation operating the equipment,” he said.
Black said it’s been hard for operators to travel away from family to go back-and-forth from Edwards Air Force Base to Ft. Riley, but the goals are clear. “All the operators have the end result in mind,” he said. “We are going to field it, we’re going to test it, we’re going to be successful in doing it and we’re going to take it down range,” he said.