The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is streamlining the design and construction of facilities built to house and support remotely piloted aircraft. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY AIRMAN 1ST CLASS ADARIUS PETTY

By David Duncan, RA, LEED AP, Vistasp Jijina, P.E., M.SAME, Timothy Morrison, and Paul Womble  

The number of U.S. Air Force missions demanding support from remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) has been on a steady upswing since the mid-1990s. From gathering intelligence to conducting air strikes, RPAs have become integral to the nation’s defense.

Designing and building the infrastructure and facilities to house and operate these aircraft is critical to mission success. The Air Force Standard Design Program, which is managed by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC), is streamlining how these important assets are designed and constructed.


The Air Force’s modern-day RPA program has its roots in the mid-1990s, when General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. produced an “unmanned” aerial vehicle known as the MQ-1 Predator. Creech AFB, Nev., formerly known as Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, was chosen to serve as the home of multiple RPA squadrons. The Air Force selected Holloman AFB, N.M., as the primary training site.

In support of the RPA program, AFCEC (then the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency) designed and built Creech’s first RPA hangar in 2004. By 2007, use of RPAs was thriving and the 432nd Wing was activated at Creech as the Air Force’s first wing comprised entirely of RPAs.

Airmen from the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing and 799th Air Base Group gather at a hangar for remotely piloted aircraft at Creech AFB, Nev. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is streamlining design and construction of these types of facilities. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY AIRMAN 1ST CLASS JAMES THOMPSON


With operations quickly ramping up, designing the necessary infrastructure and facilities for the relatively new aircraft, along with many unknowns associated with RPAs, proved challenging. The first operations facility was a pre-engineered metal building used to house five ground control stations. The inadequacies of the facility became apparent quickly.

RPAs are unique in many ways when compared to traditional Air Force aircraft. A primary difference was the ground control station as the aircraft’s cockpit. These large stations were shipped from the manufacturer—leaving the design and construction agents responsible for establishing the necessary communications support, heating, electricity, ventilation, and air conditioning to make it operational. The original, pre-engineered building design did not allow enough space for maintenance professionals to access the equipment.

As a result of the space limitations in the pre-engineered facility, AFCEC constructed a new operations facility in 2005, specifically designed with wider ground control stations for easier equipment maintenance. The new facility provided six stations, with an additional six added in 2006, to accommodate the growing mission.

All of the growing pains involved in establishing these initial facilities at Creech laid the foundation for RPA facility standard designs.


Since 2016, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment & Energy has required the use of an Air Force standard design for all facilities for which a standard design is available and applicable. If not available, design agents are required to assess whether the U.S. Army or other service branch has an applicable standard design for the proposed facility. Justification is required for projects that do not utilize standard designs.

AFCEC currently has 19 Air Force standard designs available. These fall into one of three categories: static, modular, or harvested. Static standard designs are not modular in nature and have a predetermined floorplan, such as pest management buildings. Modular designs are built around standard modules that can vary in quantity and building configuration (fighter hangars and dormitories for instance). Harvested designs are derived from actual Air Force construction projects, including the Large Airframe Two-Bay Flight Simulator, which was based on the KC-46 project.

At Tyndall, AFCEC is in the initial stages of designing a new Mission Control Elements Operations Facility. The standard design has proven extremely beneficial for cost estimation during the planning charrette.

When available, standard designs provide a host of benefits to the design team. They can jump-start a facility design by helping to establish a project’s scope and cost, and increasing planning and programming accuracy. Most available standard designs include an interactive programming spreadsheet that generates space requirements, using variables such as number of personnel, aircraft and firing lanes. The designs provide optimized, consistent and functional facility requirements, and also help manage customer expectations and reduce requests for changes during the construction process.

Standard designs are built to not be overly prescriptive by nature. They focus primarily on the functional relationships between spaces and do not prescribe features like the structural system, materials used, interior or exterior finishes or roof types. The Air Force Corporate and Installation Facility Standards, which must be referenced during an Air Force design project, need to specifically address these types of features.

A standard design for an RPA Squadron Operations Facility was added in February 2018. During development, AFCEC coordinated with Air Combat Command and functional users at Creech and Holloman to establish requirements. The resulting modular RPA design incorporates lessons learned during construction of earlier facilities at the two installations. It also incorporates features including mobile cockpit units and servers, command and administrative suites, ground control station maintenance and operating support locations, and showers and recreation areas for staff. These high-tech systems require ample server space and the necessary infrastructure to support the accompanying computer systems and electronics.

A second RPA standard design, for an RPA Hangar/Aircraft Maintenance Unit, is currently in development. Because RPAs differ greatly from traditional Air Force aircraft, there are different considerations that must be accounted for.

A radio frequencies transmission technician with the 432nd Aircraft Communications Maintenance Squadron checks a control monitor and alarm computer at Creech AFB, Nev. Air Force standard designs for facilities must accommodate the extensive communications equipment that is needed to fly remotely piloted aircraft. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY AIRMAN 1ST CLASS CHRISTIAN CLAUSEN

RPA hangars do not have a standard requirement for an engine shop, since the manufacturer picks up the engines for most maintenance and repairs. Also, the small aircraft are considered “breakaway” planes. The components of the aircraft, such as the wings, landing gears, engine and props, can be removed and loaded into 50-ft long fiberglass crates for shipping. Removing the wings or engine requires the use of a bridge crane inside the facility. Typical aircraft hangar designs do not address the space needed for the disassembly process, nor do they account for the storage of multiple fiberglass crates.

Even though standard designs encompass the most accurate information available from industry and functional users, they are living documents—and they require regular maintenance and updates. AFCEC collects and analyzes the after-action reports from projects that have utilized the designs to address any concerns or make needed adjustments to the current version. And now, with one RPA standard design available and another underway, AFCEC is getting a chance to put them to the test.


In January 2017, the Air Force selected Shaw AFB, S.C., as the preferred location to base a new MQ-9 Reaper Group, including mission control elements. Later, in November 2017, Tyndall AFB, Fla., was selected as the preferred location for hosting a new MQ-9 Reaper Wing. If approved as final, the new locations will require the design and construction of supporting infrastructure and facilities, presenting an opportunity to test the RPA Squadron Operations Facility and RPA Hangar designs.

At Tyndall, AFCEC is in the initial stages of designing a new Mission Control Elements Operations Facility. The standard design has proven extremely beneficial for cost estimation during the planning charrette. However, while the facility at Tyndall is slated to be twice the size of the standard design, thanks to the standard design’s modular layout, the design was easy to adapt and expand upon.

AFCEC will also be designing an RPA hangar for the final base. One issue that had not been previously addressed in the draft version of the RPA Hangar standard design was the use of methanol as a fuel additive for the planes. The additive requires a climate-controlled storage facility, which cannot be located within the hangar itself. Pending the outcome of a National Environmental Policy Act-required environmental analysis and final basing decision, a Launch Recovery Attack Squadron may be designed and constructed for Tyndall as well. The firstof-its-kind facility would form the basis for a new Air Force standard design.

The facilities at Shaw will include an operations facility housing two active squadrons and a headquarters facility. In addition, AFCEC will be managing construction of new facilities at Creech and Holloman, to include a new MQ-9 formal training unit operations facility.

As the RPA program expands, AFCEC’s standard design program is setting the Air Force up for success—enabling efficient and effective design and construction of facilities to support the mission.

David Duncan, RA, LEED AP, is Senior Architect, Facility Design & Construction Standards Subject Matter Expert, Vistasp Jijina, P.E., M.SAME, is Military Construction Program Manager, Timothy Morrison is Military Construction Program Manager, and Paul Womble is Military Construction Program Manager, Air Force Civil Engineer Center. They can be reached at david.duncan@;; mil; and

[This article first published in the 2018 November-December issue of The Military Engineer]