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Bay County eyes boost from Tyndall MQ-9 Reaper Wing


Nov. 30--TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE -- A new drone wing slated for Tyndall Air Force Base is expected to bring 24 aircraft, 1,600 airmen -- and the need for more local housing, classrooms and specialized training.

Col. Brian Laidlaw, vice commander of Tyndall's 325th Fighter Wing, said the base is enthusiastic about Tuesday's announcement that a new MQ-9 Reaper wing likely will be coming to the base in the next few years.

"Anytime you get a new mission to a base, there's a certain buzz associated with that," Laidlaw said Wednesday. "We recognize there's going to be a lot of hard work here in the near future for those of us who are here, as well as those of us coming to join us very shortly. ... We're excited about doing it, for sure."

The wing of 24 MQ-9 Reaper drones, cutting-edge remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), is expected to arrive at Tyndall by 2022, bringing about 1,600 airmen to Bay County by 2020.

"That includes an operations group and a maintenance group, that includes a launch and control element, as well as a mission control element that are all part of the RPA enterprise that will come along with those 24 new aircraft," Laidlaw said.

And the wing's arrival will mean more people "in your schools, in your churches, in your neighborhoods," he said.

Bay County is welcoming to the military, Laidlaw added, and Tyndall can't wait to share that atmosphere that with the incoming airmen.

Tom Neubauer, president of the Bay Defense Alliance, also said the community would support the new crews and their families. The alliance advocates for the military and played a large role in bringing the wing to Tyndall.

"We're delighted," Neubauer said. "It makes the base much stronger to have a next generation mission here."

Construction costs for the new wing likely will be in the millions, and the school system also will grow as the military families move in, Neubauer added.

Gulf Coast State College, which already offers a unmanned vehicle system program, has anticipated the Reaper wing for some time. Though the program currently only deals with commercial vehicles -- some of which the military also uses -- the school has been approached by the 1st Air Force, housed at Tyndall, about modifying its curriculum to go along with the wing.

"We knew it could be a possibility," program coordinator Jose "Tony" Lopez-Baquero said Wednesday. "That was not a problem. ... A Reaper pilot, let's say, ends their duty and wants to get out. That duty doesn't directly translate to civilian commercial operations. We would be receiving some of the service members leaving when they use their G.I. Bill and retrain on smaller systems."

Lopez-Baquero also said it is possible Gulf Coast students could join the MQ-9 crew down the road, as the college uses ground crews just like the military. Students also can get into subcontracting work once the drones take hold in Bay County.

Local real estate agent Kelly Flanagan, who specializes in relocating military families, also is predicting good side effects, particularly for the housing market.

"I think it's going to be great," she said. "The more jobs, the better."

The city of Parker already has plans in place for a new East Bay Flats apartment complex, which would take up about 16 acres and house from 175 to 200 units at the base of the DuPont Bridge near Tyndall. The complex, partially intended to accommodate airmen and others who work on base, was put on hold earlier this year, but Parker Mayor Richard Musgrave said in September the project could be complete in two to three years.

"We've been in the planning stages for this one for about four to five years," Musgrave said in September. "It's about a $38 million project. ... We'd love to see something happen."

Nearby Eglin Air Force Base also had been a top-four contender to house the Reaper wing, but the basing decision is not bad news for the surrounding community, according to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose congressional district includes Fort Walton Beach.

Gaetz said Eglin officials had been concerned that adding a drone unit at the base could compromise the activities of the 96th Test Wing in that the drones would bring additional air traffic to the base. And Air Force officials are working on a "memorandum of understanding" to ensure any upcoming drone operations at Tyndall don't interfere with Eglin missions, he added.

"I'm very grateful for the decision," Gaetz said, calling it "the best of both worlds" for his 1st Congressional District, which stretches from the Alabama border east to near Panama City.

While protecting Eglin missions, basing the drone unit at Tyndall will create "spill-over" economic benefits for Northwest Florida, Gaetz said. In addition to the military personnel who will move to the area, the new drone squadron will attract military contractors and the associated jobs, he said.

Beyond that, Gaetz added, a drone squadron at Tyndall could turn this part of the state into a center of innovation for unmanned aerial vehicles, particularly as Tyndall personnel with drone maintenance and operation experience retire and move into private life.

"The commercial sector follows talent," Gaetz said.

Tyndall was identified Tuesday as the "preferred alternative" by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson because of the base's weather, "ample airspace," close proximity to training ranges and other factors, Laidlaw said. A final decision by the Air Force depends on an environmental analysis, which could take nine months to two years, and numerous details have yet to be hashed out.

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