Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Teaching Non-Pilots to Fly Predators Requires More Cockpit Hours in Manned Aircraft
By Grace V. Jean
The Air Force last fall graduated its first class of Predator pilots from an experimental program aimed at training non-aviators how to fly remotely-operated aircraft.
With the eight graduates either flying combat missions or training for operations at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., officials are making changes to the program to ensure that future beta test pilots are earning their drone wings with sufficient flying time inside the cockpits of traditional aircraft.
“They need more airmanship,” said Col. Luther “Trey” Turner III, chief of the operational training division at Air Force headquarters.
Officials long have argued that flying the aircraft requires piloting experience and skills that must be gained and honed in the skies.
“It’s a very demanding job to be a Predator pilot or sensor operator,” said Turner, a former commander of the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron that flies the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper at Creech. “In some cases, you’re laying down fires in close proximity to friendly forces. You integrate with unmanned aircraft. There are a lot of things that you need to know how to do. We need to make sure we’re arming our airmen with the tools to be able to do that.”
A shortage of experienced pilots available to convert to Predator and Reaper operators caused the service to look elsewhere in its ranks to fill the gap. The beta test program was created to help the service meet the growing demand for remotely piloted systems in the war effort.
With the exception of Air Force Academy cadets, all of the service’s pilot candidates proceed through a course called initial flight screening at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Colorado. It is typically 18 hours long for traditional students who then go on to specialized undergraduate pilot training assignments to fly more manned aircraft. By the time they reach their formal combat units, they will have accrued several hundred flying hours.
The beta test program pilots also go through initial flight screening but do not gain more flight hours in manned aircraft before progressing to Predator-specific training courses and simulations. Officials have concluded that more flight time is necessary to hone these pilots’ flying skills before they begin to operate Predators from control stations on the ground.
Future beta test pilots will acquire 35 hours of manned flying training instead of only 18 hours, said Turner. With the increase, students will receive two solo cross-country flights in addition to more flight time in the air.
“The goal is to take the students to the equivalent training level of a private pilot,” he said. Officials are striving to give the pilot candidates 27 hours of flight time in the air with instructors, 11 hours of solo flight time and five hours in simulation.
“We are working to find a school to do this once the chief of staff of the Air Force gives the green light on normal production,” said Turner. In the meantime, subsequent beta classes will continue with the initial flight screening program at Pueblo, where contractors provide the training. If Air Force officials cannot implement the desired syllabus because of contractual issues, then they will put beta students through both the pilot and combat systems officer syllabuses at Pueblo to increase their flying training, Turner added.
After completing initial flight screening, beta students head to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, where they undergo instrument training and take an unmanned aircraft systems fundamentals course.
The instrument simulator is a T-6 system with flight characteristics based on the A-10 Warthog. “It’s what was available,” said Turner. Officials have added more T-6 systems to the instruction program, including two emergency procedures simulators that will test pilots in stressful time-critical skills. They also have initiated the acquisition process to attain a different instrument simulator that meets Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
Officials said that the service needs the new systems in place by fiscal year 2011 because they anticipate exceeding Randolph’s T-6 simulation training capacity in 2012. The sims must be movable in case the training course moves to another base in the future, they added.
The 21-day unmanned aircraft systems fundamentals course teaches the basics of UAS operations through academic classes and simulators. Sensor operators join the pilots during this phase, where they are taught crew resource management skills.
Computer trainers introduce students to the ground station controls for the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9 Reaper. Last month, officials were expecting the arrival of a preliminary version of a new desktop simulator called the Predator Reaper Integrated Mission Environment, or PRIME. The first operational version is expected to be delivered in August.
When Predator pilots arrive at Creech, quite a bit of their advanced training is done in simulators, officials said. But improvements to the simulators are necessary if more training is to be pushed into the virtual world.
“I think they’ve maxed out what we can do in the simulator at Creech for now,” said Turner. Officials are in search of a high-fidelity simulator that more closely replicates the challenges of maintaining a quality picture with the Predator’s multispectral targeting system sensor ball.
“If we get a higher fidelity simulator for the Predator, maybe we would end up putting more in the sim,” said Turner. “I think it has a lot of potential. We just need to make sure we’re doing it right.”
In December, the beta test program’s second class was on its way to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., for the joint fire power course, which all Predator operators take regardless of their flying and combat experience.
Officials had scheduled to begin training the third beta class last month to be followed with a fourth next month and a fifth one in May.
“We will continue to tweak our training between the classes, and over time the production through-put will pick up even more,” said Turner.
The beta course feeds into the Air Force’s Predator training pipeline, which continues to draw airmen from across the entire force, said Turner. The formal training unit is expected to produce 280 MQ-1 pilots and sensor operators and 120 MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators during fiscal 2011.