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Air Force Refines Training Programs for UAV Operators 


by Frank Colucci 

With growing numbers of Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aircraft expected to enter service in the years ahead, the U.S. Air Force is solidifying plans to train operators and support crews.

For the Predator now armed with Hellfire missiles, the Air Force intends to draw all future Predator pilots from fighter-bomber cockpits.

Formal training for the unarmed Global Hawk has just begun with officer pilots drawn from a range of aircraft. Meanwhile, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps continue to entrust their tactical UAVs to enlisted air vehicle/sensor operators.

The different UAV “schoolhouses” also are revising their courses to exploit new capabilities and may acquire new UAV training devices.

Both the Global Hawk high-altitude endurance UAV and the Predator medium-altitude endurance UAV are overseen by the Air Force Air Combat Command. The piston-engined Predator requires a pilot and sensor operator to actively fly the entire mission, including takeoff and landing.

Within the Predator ground control station, the pilot works a conventional control stick, throttle and rudder pedals. “That 1 G cockpit is parked on the ground with full connectivity to any information you might need,” says Lt. Col. Eric Mathewson, UAV special mission chief at ACC Headquarters in Langley Air Force Base, Va. “Your situational awareness is oftentimes better than it would be in a manned aircraft.”

Predator pilot and sensor operator stations have identical displays. Two stacked television screens show the view from the boresighted day television camera in the nose and the infrared/day television sensor in the gimbaled payload turret. Above the camera displays, a digital map with an aircraft symbol pinpoints the position of the UAV. Besides the pilot’s-eye view on the video displays, two command and status screens present graphic flight data including airspeed, altitude, and angle of attack, and an artificial horizon. The Air Force is evaluating a head-up display.

With flights lasting 16 hours or more, the typical Predator mission requires two pilots and four sensor operators, who remain in the cockpit no longer than four hours at a time to prevent fatigue. “The way we plan, brief and execute is what you’d find in a manned aircraft,” says Mathewson. “We have a persistent aircraft, which means we have a lot more to plan for. We also have a tactically dynamic aircraft, so it never gets dull.”

Rapidly changing orders and intelligence from multiple ground and airborne sources require skilled UAV crews.

The 11th Reconnaissance Squadron at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, near Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., started formal Global Hawk training classes in August 1995. The squadron became a dedicated training unit a little over a year ago, and now graduates officer pilots and enlisted sensor operators for the deployable 15th and 17th RSs. “All new Predator people come through here and get dispersed,” says 11th RS chief of standardization evaluation Capt. Richard Trzaskoma.

Pilots and sensor operators attend concurrent three-and-a-half month training courses, each with 10 to 12 students per class. “When we can, we meld them together in a class and pair them up for a lot of the flying,” says Trzaskoma. Predator pilot candidates come to the UAV at least one tour on a major Air Force weapons system, but classes mix officers of widely varying rank and experience. Sensor operators are generally young intelligence specialists who come straight from Air Force schools. The Air Force, nevertheless, is moving toward permanent crews that match pilots and sensor operators of equal UAV experience.

The Predator crew must plan missions before launch, and share information and resources while the vehicle is in flight. Enroute, the fixed and slewable cameras of the Predator enable the pilot to watch for weather and maintain situational awareness. In target areas, the operators rely on the L3 Wescam electro-optical payload and Northrop Grumman tactical endurance synthetic aperture radar. Below 500 feet in the landing pattern, the payload gimbal is locked in place to give the pilot a backup sensor, should the nose camera fail.

The Predator schoolhouse now has a menu task trainer enabling crewmembers to learn procedures through keyboard menus. Funds have been allocated for a more capable simulator, but a contractor has yet to be named.

Pilot classes at the 11th RS so far have been filled from all Air Force cockpits, and a tour on unmanned air vehicles is becoming more desirable for pilots of conventional aircraft. “It used to be people were dragged in here fighting and kicking,” observes Trzaskoma. “Now we’re seeing people ask to come here.”

The student pilot mix is now around 80 percent from fighter-bomber assignments and 20 percent from airlift and other communities. However, with the Predator now able to fire weapons, as well as designate targets for manned attack aircraft, the Air Force intends to draw all future Predator pilots from fighter-bombers. Trzaskoma notes, “We started that when things started coming off the front. With the MQ-1, we just wanted to get people with that experience coming in the door.”

Armed UAV capability has expanded Predator training. The pilot syllabus now provides 20 days of classroom instruction and 50 to 60 hours flying time in phases. The initial training phase covers takeoff and landing and basic handling. A successful check-ride half way through the syllabus gives the pilot basic mission qualification. Subsequent phases cover reconnaissance, surface attack tactics, and strike coordination and reconnaissance.

While CAE USA provides civilian instructors for most classroom work and 30 to 40 percent of the flying, Air Force instructors are responsible for tactical training and qualification check-rides. The glider-like Predator is sensitive to wind gusts and thermals on landing, but the pilot washout rate is now less than 2 percent, and no RQ-1s have been lost in training accidents in more than a year.

The Air Force plans two more Predator squadrons, so the 11th RS anticipates training more students despite the more efficient use of UAV personnel. Predator deployments originally packaged 55 people with a ground station and four aircraft, and planned 2.5 crews per aircraft per deployment. In 2002, however, the Air Force began to fly and control Predators from different locations. With centralized control and crews flying shifts, the service already has cut its requirement for sensor operators by 30 percent.

Despite its successes, the Predator has yet to be classified a major weapons system, with its own Air Force specialty code for pilots. Graduates of the 11th RS still are classed as general pilots and expect to return to flying cockpits after their UAV tour. According to Trzaskoma, “The handshake deal with the Air Force is, as a pilot, you will go back to a major weapons system.” The UAV community nevertheless has growing appeal. “A few people have extended their stay on the Predator,” says Trzaskoma. “That used to not happen at all.”

Though first production aircraft have been delivered only recently and initial operational test and evaluation is not until 2006, the Global Hawk already has gone to war. Test aircraft were deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The first ACC crews began training on the Global Hawk in March 2003.

Early training was conducted by Northrop Grumman instructors. A new formal training syllabus taught by the 12th RS at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., started in November, and draws on operational experience from Afghanistan and Iraq, and on the input of Air Force instructors.

The course is still under development. “We don’t have a final program yet,” says Col. Tom Tibideau, the deputy for the Global Hawk systems management organization at ACC headquarters. “It looks to be about six months start to finish, including mission planning, ground training, a heavy simulator period and then flight training.”

Actual flight time is spread over eight to 12 sorties. With missions up to 36 hours in duration, multiple crews can take turns to accomplish training tasks.

The Global Hawk is operated by a pilot and sensor operator. It takes off, flies a programmed route and lands with only keyboard commands. The crew-station computer displays are formatted much like modern “glass cockpits,” and missions are developed on a planning station.

Once the mission is underway, automated emergency returns can be commanded without stick and rudder inputs. The pilot need only pick a waypoint for the robot airplane to turn around.

Tibideau learned to fly the big UAV program after 3,500 flight hours in UH-1 Huey helicopters. “It’s completely different. You have to be able to visualize what the airplane is doing to anticipate it.”

The ground station has separate launch-and-recover and mission control elements that need not be co-located. The “reach-back” capability of the UAV system allows a Global Hawk launched from a forward operating location to be flown by a crew in the continental United States.

The launch-and-recover pilot initiates the automated takeoff and communicates with air traffic controllers. “Once the airplane is up and away, and it’s mission dependent, we hand it off to a mission control element,” explains Tibideau. The mission control crew programs and oversees the sensor collection plan. About two hours before landing, they return control to the recovery crew for landing. In a typical 24-hour mission, four to six crews will occupy the mission control element. A single launch and recovery element crew handles takeoff and landing with benefit of a rest period.

Though the production version of Global Hawk has a forward-looking infrared camera for takeoff and landing, the pilot relies on graphic displays to maintain situational awareness. “We’re looking at a two-dimensional math plot. The pilot has to visualize the three dimensional model. That’s where the piloting skills come in,” says Tibideau. To be sure they have the necessary air-sense, all Global Hawk pilots must have military or FAA instrument flight ratings. “The hard part with this airplane is trying to keep ahead of it. You’ve have to stay ahead of it, instead of reacting to it.”

Despite the highly automated pilot interface, the Global Hawk requires the pilot be a systems monitor and manager. “One of the hardest things for pilots to learn is the communications link management. We have up to five links available from satellites to line of sight,” Tibideau notes. “Knowing when to use what link, and what is the quality of the link adds something to the cross-check the pilots are not accustomed to monitoring.”

The 12th RS recently received a Global Hawk part task trainer. Northrop Grumman is under contract to provide an emergency procedures trainer. Sensor operators have no dedicated training device, but desktop computer software emulates sensor modes.

The contractor has offered the Air Force a full mission simulator with a single pilot station. “The quest is you never fly the airplane in training,” explains Ed Walby, the company’s manager of Global Hawk business development. “What we proposed is a mission control element in form, fit, and function but with a simulator on the back end. We should be able to get to a point, as the aircrew sits down, when they won’t be able to tell if it’s the aircraft or the simulator.”

The proposed training device will be able to take part in networked simulations with a JSTARS (joint surveillance and target acquisition radar system) aircraft or strike package crews located around the United States. Northrop Grumman says the simulator could be ready in two years.

The Global Hawk has a range of 13,500 nautical miles and 36 hours of endurance. Crews rotate on four- to six-hour shifts. Current plans call for 51 production UAVs and 10 ground control segments with crew-to-aircraft ratios like those of other large Air Force aircraft. While assignment schedules have yet to be finalized, pilots coming to the Global Hawk from other systems are expected to return to flying cockpits after a three-year tour.

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