CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — The mobilization here shows no signs of slowing down. The demands for aerial surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan grow by the day, and that means more Predators and pilots are needed.
To ease the crunch, the Air Force is rushing the production of new Predator unmanned aircraft and is expediting the training of hundreds of aviators here at the home of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing — established last year as the Air Force’s first unit dedicated solely to unmanned aerial systems.
But aviators are finding that their abilities to support the war are hindered by the outdated technology in their ground “cockpits” and the user-unfriendly equipment they employ to control the UAVs.
Many of these pilots, who have earned their wings inside the cockpits of fighter jets, say the control station’s design is archaic and limits their flying and combat capabilities.
“It’s ’90s technology and it’s not ergonomically designed,” says Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the 1,100-airmen wing. “A new cockpit would be a great and wonderful thing.”
Whoever designed the control stations for Predators was definitely not a combat pilot, aviators say.
To shoot a Hellfire missile from a Predator, says Chambliss, “I have to make 17-plus different mouse clicks in pull-down menus. In my aviator thought-process, that doesn’t make much sense. I would much rather have a cockpit where I reach over here, arm, select and shoot.”
Pilots say they could be executing many more missions if they had workstations that resembled the cockpit of their fighter jets. “In my F-16, I get rid of the weapon with one switch,” says Chambliss.
Another design shortcoming in the control station is that the buttons for deploying weapons and shutting off the airplane’s engine are adjacent to one another. That creates a safety hazard, pilots say.
Chambliss’ ideal ground control station would put the pilot and the sensor operator in cockpits that looked similar to that of an F-16 or an F-15. “I want to be able to fly and employ this airplane just like I fly and employ a manned asset,” he says. Predator pilots simply want to operate the aircraft safely with better visibility of the battle zone.
A modern cockpit-like design might even help persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to lift its ban on unmanned aircraft in national civilian airspace. One of the FAA requirements is that pilots have at least 120 degrees field of view, which they currently lack.
In a typical Predator ground station, a pilot and a sensor operator sit side-by-side and control a single aircraft. The wing is testing out an experimental ground station that allows one pilot and four sensor operators to fly multiple Predators simultaneously.
That setup has raised safety concerns. Sensor operators, who are not pilots but enlisted airmen with a technical specialty in controlling the “eyes” of the Predator, would be responsible for the bulk of the aircraft’s operations. “That entails a lot more training and a whole different skill set,” says Chambliss.
On the pilot side, controlling multiple aircraft also will take more training. “It’s one thing to do single-plane operations. It’s another step forward to control two or three, and only a couple of people can do four-ship. It’s a big training bill to pay,” he says.
The situation is similar to a fighter pilot coming into an F-16 squadron as a wingman. He must spend a year there learning the ropes before moving onto more complicated roles, such as flight lead. But the ability to control multiple Predators with fewer operators is an appealing prospect for the wing.
Predator pilots typically are logged on 10 different web pages to keep tabs on the weather, to read the latest intelligence report or to look at grid overlays of maps. Many also are connected to five chat rooms to talk to airspace coordinators in the theater and target-locating troops on the ground.
Though the crews here control the aircraft during flight, they rely on forward-deployed Predator teams in Southwest Asia to pilot the planes for take-offs and landings because of a two-second time delay in satellite signal transmissions. Only since 2003 have these signals been sent directly to satellites, which enables the operating crews to be based anywhere in the world. Fewer troops then need to be rotated into theater.
When airmen finish learning how to operate the Predator systems at the flight-training unit, they simply walk across the street to one of the squadrons and immediately begin flying combat operations.
To the casual observer, Predator operators have it easy. They are on duty for a few hours a day, at the end of which they go home to their families. Their tours, however, last two or even three years. “It’s more of a marathon versus a sprint,” Chambliss says.
The average duration of Predator sorties in theater is 20 to 22 hours, and crews often work in shifts that last more than 10 hours.
Chambliss says more pilots are volunteering for Predator duty. As recently as three years ago, many airmen joining the wing weren’t offered a choice. Now, overwhelmingly, the vast majority of pilots are volunteers, he says. All of the pilot spots are filled, despite the unglamorous association of flying combat missions from the ground.
“In terms of sheer fun, it’s way more fun to climb up the ladder and get in the airplane,” concedes Chambliss. “But in terms of combat effect, I know every time I open the door of the ground control station, I’m going to be looking at stuff on the ground, talking to the guys on the ground, and trying to get them out of harm’s way.”
The sensor operators and data analysts are drawn from the intelligence career field, which is becoming strained because of the high demand for specialists.
Maj. Danielle Curley, a Predator instructor pilot with the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, says that pilots do become frustrated on occasion, but they get invested in the mission and they feel like they’re contributing to the fight.
Tanker and cargo aircraft pilots in particular are excited to be part of the wing because they’re able to take a more direct part in the close-air support mission, she adds.
Chambliss says that a close-air support mission that might have lasted only 30 minutes in his F-16 is often eight hours or more for the Predator.
Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes shoot an email or give a shout to thank the operators sitting in the trailers. “That translates into a mission accomplishment, frankly, that I don’t know you get flying airplanes,” says Chambliss.
There is an ongoing debate in the services over who should be flying these unmanned systems. The Air Force believes it ought to have the overall authority, but the other services are reluctant to give up control of their own aircraft.
Chambliss says that anyone can operate the smaller-size aircraft, such as the Scan Eagles and Ravens, but that only licensed aviators should be allowed to fly the larger Predators, the Army’s Shadows and similar systems.
Soldiers without pilot wings are flying the Shadow in combat, but Chambliss points out that only Army aviators execute the crucial take-offs and landings.
By virtue of their larger size, Predators fly in airspace that is shared by manned aircraft. Avoiding aerial collisions, especially in the congested airspace found in Iraq, is a skill that requires the knowledge and experience of pilots. Employing lethal force is a traditional Air Force pilot responsibility, even in a two-person cockpit, Chambliss says.
The 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing was located here because Creech, at the southern end of the Nevada Test Range, is one of the few locations in the country where UAVs can take off and land without having to deal with the FAA.
The Air Force had to resurface an old runway to make it operational for the aircraft. Originally an auxiliary field for Nellis Air Force Base, Creech has transformed into a network of trailers, small buildings and semi-permanent structures to shelter the 2,000 people who commute 45 minutes through the desert daily. And still, it is bursting at the seams.
To accommodate the growth, the wing is moving, squadron by squadron, to the north side of the base — and farther away from prying eyes. The building that houses the wing headquarters is only a few feet away from a small casino just on the other side of the wall.
The wing already is looking ahead beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and working with military planners at Pacific Command and Southern Command to determine what the squadrons could do if they were to deploy combat air patrols there.
“You could easily envision a time when you walk in, in the morning, and you ask, ‘what am I doing today?’ You’re looking for narcoterrorists in Guatemala. You’re looking for al-Qaida. You’re in a training sortie today on the southern Korean peninsula. It just doesn’t matter now — you’re talking about a globally flexible application,” says Chambliss.