March Air Reserve Base, California --
As he ascends to command of the 163d Attack Wing’s Maintenance Group, Lt. Col. Blake LaMar considers it a priority task to complete the move of the MQ-9 Reaper and its associated shops from Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) in Victorville to the 163d’s home at March Air Reserve Base in Moreno Valley, California.
Unbeknownst to many at the Wing, maintainers have been performing their duties admirably after long, arduous, rush-hour drives to SCLA, an estimated 30 percent tax on the shop’s man hours, and a deep source of frustration to maintainers. “They are either doing all that driving on their own dime, in their own cars, or, to get government-provided transportation, which they really should be using, they need to drive to March [first],” says LaMar. “We’re not manned for a split operation, either on the Operations or Maintenance side. We’re only manned to be flying out of home station.”
“Guys are having to show up for work [early] in the morning, then driving through traffic, and having car accidents, and that kind of thing,” LaMar recounts. “And we have crew-rest issues. Our mission is expanding. We’ve gone from five to eight crews, adding demand for more student sorties, then to 12 and then to 16 crews, all since 2009. And we’re talking about doubling that in the next two years.”
The two-year move-to-March project LaMar has been tasked to oversee now awaits the completion of an environmental assessment study. Despite the air base’s daily traffic of everything from KC-135s to F-15s, the relatively low-impact Reaper’s noise and air pollution must be measured and reported.
“It’s required by federal law that we check all these boxes and address these things with due diligence, and we are,” says LaMar. “We’re trailblazing right now. We’re doing something that only one other unit has done, so it’s more important that we do it safely than we do it quickly. It’s not that it’s inherently dangerous; it’s that it’s new.”
LaMar says that other Air National Guard unit, the 174th Attack Wing in Syracuse, N.Y., had a two-year head start on moving its MQ-9 operation into a U.S. urban area, and that trading experience with that wing has been helpful. For example, the 163d developed a letter of agreement with air traffic controllers, a template used by the 174th, while “the 163d borrowed their Concept of Employment as part of environmental assessment.” Both Wings, LaMar says, are writing the checklists for operating remote-piloted aircraft within congested airspace as they go along.
Based on the reaction to test flights, LaMar predicts that the presence of the MQ-9 at March will boost morale across the Wing. “It’s really been cool to look out and watch an MQ-9 take off, do a low approach around here, and fly in the pattern,” LaMar says. “The crew chiefs, all the maintainers, all the people who work at headquarters and everyone else can walk to their cars, and there goes an MQ-9, and think ‘I contribute to that.’ It puts everybody closer to the mission, not only does that help on the morale side, but on the efficiency side. It improves everyone’s quality of life.”
On the actual maintenance side, LaMar exudes nothing but confidence about the mission. He says the platform’s Achilles heel—the use of a non-redundant electrical generator, raising fears of catastrophic failure—has already been addressed with a modification that includes a direct-drive brushless alternator. “[The MQ-9] is a pretty complicated system with lots of moving parts,” LaMar says. “But it’s almost tail-specific, where some work perfectly and others have glitches.” Still, he believes his maintainers can deal with some of the MQ-9s unique features, such as its Synthetic Aperture Radar, as well as any unit in the world, active duty or Guard.
Maintenance will experience a growth spurt as well, LaMar says, including the integration of active-duty flying and maintenance organizations in the near future. “Growth is change and change is hard and challenging,” LaMar says. “We’re being smart about how we accomplish that change and incorporate it. I want the elements that make us the Grizzlys—that got the 163d so good—to be preserved, and to grow that, not sacrifice that for the sake of growth. And not just the skill set for the maintenance personnel, but the culture, the work environment, the taking care of each other. The mission is important, and so is taking care of our people.”
In that constant balancing of mission effectiveness and maintainer harmony, LaMar says he’s completely in line with his predecessor commander, Lt. Col. John Ramos, who LaMar lauds as “one of the finest men I’ve ever met.” One difference in leadership styles will be LaMar’s presence, he warns. As a traditional Guardsman, LaMar’s time with the unit will be limited. But Lt. Col. Todd will oversee daily operations, providing continuity as Deputy Commander, LaMar says. “I’ve come into an organization that’s humming like a well-oiled machine,” LaMar concludes.
But LaMar knows command duties as if born to them, as in fact he was: His father, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Edward Blake LaMar, commanded the 163d when it was Group size. Regarding his father as a mentor and “best friend,” LaMar, Jr., served his first command tour with the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron combat unit, from 2010-2014, before becoming Deputy Commander of the Operations Group. A student of the art of leadership, LaMar studies monthly with a select group of business and industry leaders under the chairman of Pepperdine Business School’s Organizational Leadership program. Leadership is “not just about success, but true happiness, and leading from that perspective,” LaMar says.
For his part, LaMar finds his bliss in a new command that puts him at “the juncture between day-to-day execution and strategic planning. You have to be looking to the horizon, but making sure you’re in today’s fight as well.”
Editor’s note: In some instances, only first names are given because the Air Force limits disclosure of identifying information for personnel involved with remotely piloted aircraft.