March 12 (UPI) -- The Air Force's two remotely piloted aircraft -- MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper -- have jointly reached a historic milestone: more than 4 million flight hours for attack and reconnaissance, and search and rescue.
Air Force officials said Monday in an announcement that the flight hours, and time it took to reach the milestone, "are a testament to the value of the aircraft."
The Reaper, which began in 2007, replaced the smaller Predator, which was retired in 2018 after 22 years of operation. The two drones hit the 2 million hour mark milestone in 2012, the 3 million milestone in 2016 and the 4 million hour mark in March. The Reaper itself is anticipated to hit the 2 million hour mark this summer.
"The total number of hours for the birds is wildly impressive," Jim Roche, who served as secretary of the Air Force from 2001 to 2005, said in a news release. "But, even more impressive is the 4 million hours of pilot and sensor operator time. That's over 450 years of operations time per crewman. Add in maintainers, planners and support personnel, and this means that our RPA operation [remotely piloted aircraft] was and will remain massive and deadly when needed."
Roche led weaponization of the MQ-1 after 9/11.
The drones can be armed with laser and GPS-guided missiles and bombs, including the Hellfire, GBU-12 Paveway, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
They also provide strike and support to civil authority missions.
The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint has flown a little more than 1 million hours and the U-2 Dragon Lady has flown 485,000 hours. Data being gathered for them goes back to the 1960s.
"Our country and a number of our allies have benefited in wartime in ways we would not have believed before the turn of the century," Roche said. "To all who made this happen, to include the design and manufacturing of the aircraft and who continue to adapt these devices to emerging threats, our wholehearted thanks and admiration. Well done, Airmen."
Airmen responsible for the MQ-9 are located at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.; Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota; Whiteman AFB, Mo.; and Shaw AFB, S.C.
"We needed to build an enterprise to better understand the adversary and keep their heads down so they could never put together a complex attack," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. "The Airmen here are delivering combat capabilities every single day."
Besides the Air Force, the Reaper is exported to U.S. allies. The Reaper was designed to be faster, larger and capable of carrying bigger payloads of sensors and heavier weapons than the Predator. The aircraft has a flight ceiling of up to 40,000 feet, putting it above ground fire, except for advanced surface-to-air missiles.
The U.S. Air Force last November awarded General Atomics Aeronautical Systems a $263.4 million contract for production of the Reaper.
In December, General Atomics and Raytheon were each awarded contracts in December for support of the MQ-9 Reaper, one for sensors and the other for overall program support, that come to a total of more than $350 million.