Predator, Reaper Crew Training at All Time High As Demand Continues

By Valerie Insinna
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico — Inside what looks like a small shipping container, in a tiny space crammed with rows of electronics and stacks of video displays, a pilot practices flying the MQ-9 Reaper with an instructor hovering behind.

To the pilot’s right is the “sensor,” who operates the Reaper’s different cameras used to hone in on a target. The sensor is listening closely to his own instructor, who is leaning over him, gesturing at some incoming video footage.

“Your screen is looking jacked up. This is what you can do when that happens,” she says before explaining how to improve the imagery.

Every pilot and sensor operator that maneuver the MQ-1 Predator and its big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, complete both live and simulated training like this at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The base owns nine Predator and 15 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft — the Air Force’s preferred term for a drone.

Training activity at Holloman reflects the ever-growing need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets such as the MQ-1 and MQ-9, and Air Force officials expect those demands will continue into the near future, they tell National Defense during an October visit.

Commanders of the four training squadrons on base stress that their main goal is to get new pilots and sensor operators ready for the unpredictability they will face in combat, whether that’s conducting surveillance in Afghanistan or rooting out Islamic State terrorists in Syria.

“There’s no combat mission that’s going to be exactly the same” as the training missions at Holloman, says Lt. Col. Jim Price, commander of the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, which teaches students how to operate Predators. “You have to teach people how to think critically and how to take dynamic situations ... and go, ‘How do I rack and stack my priorities, and what do I do right now to get it done?’”

The four-month long process starts when a pilot and sensor operator begin training together in simulators. From there, students move to ground control stations located on base to practice flying an actual Predator or Reaper around Holloman’s airspace.

Then, it’s off to their operational squadron, where they will fly RPAs located halfway around the world in missions ranging from close-air support to building intelligence that could lead to the capture or strike of a high-value target.

CAE USA contractors are responsible for generating the training curriculum and make up about one-third of the instructors at Holloman, says George Stillman, the training and simulation company’s site manager and an MQ-9 instructor pilot.

Contractors are embedded in all four of Holloman’s training squadrons, and can instruct students both on a simulator and in a live flight, Stillman says. No other aircraft — manned or unmanned — can be taught and flown by contractors.

“Every one of the pilots that are working for me is a military veteran,” including many former Air Force pilots, he says. “So we bring that expertise to this game.”

The Air Force and CAE collaborate on the syllabus and curriculum used to train the crew, which is constantly evolving to meet current needs, Stillman says. A new syllabus was issued in October.

If the Air Force is developing tactics for a mission set that the F-16 has done in the past, “I’ve got real world knowledge that I can bring to this fight and say, ‘Hey, this is how we used to do it in the F-16,’” he says. Most of CAE’s sensor instructors have operational experience, as well.

General Atomics’ Predator was introduced into the fleet in 1995, but procurement of the aircraft exploded when the war in Afghanistan began. In 2007, the Air Force began operating the Reaper, which can fly at twice the speed and altitude and carry double the payload of its smaller brother.

As combatant commander demand for the MQ-1 and MQ-9 grows, so does the number of pilots and sensor operators moving through training. There has been a 540 percent growth in the number of graduates since fiscal year 2009, going from 136 students that year to 714 in fiscal year 2014, Stillman says. On a given day, students on nine simulators fly an average of 45 sorties, while those practicing live flights conduct 40 sorties.

Before coming to Holloman, the pilot and sensor operator undergo undergraduate training at Pueblo, Colorado, and Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, to learn the fundamentals of RPA use. Upon their arrival in New Mexico, pilots and sensor operators are paired together and begin training on flight simulators modeled to look like the ground control stations used operationally.

Both the real and simulated GCS are equipped with a joystick, throttle and upwards of eight different auxiliary displays. The sensor operator controls the Predator’s MTS/A or Reaper’s MTS/B multi-spectral targeting system — both manufactured by Raytheon — that allows him to designate targets with a laser and conduct surveillance with electro-optical, low-light and infrared cameras. Monitors display moving maps, video footage from a camera mounted on the RPA’s nose or from the sensor, and lines upon lines of data showing the status of the aircraft and its subsystems.

“Because we don’t have any of the tactile feels that the pilots normally have” — such as the sensations of gravity — “we have a lot more screens available and feedback mechanisms to let us know what the airplane is doing,” Stillman explains. “All of these screens are different bits of information that the crew has to manage in order to successfully fly the mission.”

These myriad maps, computers, controls and displays add up to what can be an almost overwhelming amount of data.

“The information is not presented in a friendly way to the crew,” Stillman says.

James, an Air Force instructor who teaches pilots how to fly the Reaper on a simulator, flew both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 from 2010 to 2013. To protect the safety of airmen involved in the training, maintenance and operation of RPAs, the Air Force forbids journalists from printing their full names.

One of the most challenging skills for pilots is learning how to balance tasks such as piloting the aircraft, managing different systems, and keeping in communication with the air traffic controller, James says. With so many cluttered auxiliary displays, it can be difficult to quickly look up information like the vehicle’s oil level.

“Operationally, I’ll often reach up here and mark stuff with my little ... dry erase marker, so I can quickly reference it,” he says, circling a line of information on a screen listing about 20 items. “There’s a lot of information that’s just scattered between several different vids.”

During their first flights on the simulator, pilots practice how to handle the RPA, says Lt. Col. Juan “Dice” Torres, commander of the 9th Attack Squadron, one of two at the base devoted to training MQ-9 pilots. Operators rehearse how to move the aircraft with fluid motions or risk interrupting its satellite connection. Once they have learned the basics, pilots will then conduct simulated missions including ISR, combat search and rescue and air interdiction.

The experience of the simulator is very close to that of actually piloting the aircraft, James says.
“Probably the biggest difference I know is the graphics in the simulator,” he says. “Just looking at that [full motion video], I can tell that’s computer generated.”

Students at Holloman only learn how to operate the RPA once it’s already in the air, Torres says. A separate curriculum at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada teaches them how to take off and land.

Likewise, a separate pilot and sensor operator deployed in theater launch and recover the air vehicle during a mission, he says. One reason for that is because of the two-second latency between the satellite link connecting the RPA and the operators located stateside.

“They have to have that real time feedback when they’re landing just for those minute inputs that they need to make to make sure the aircraft lands safely,” Torres says.

Landing the Predator and Reaper also requires added expertise, Stillman says. The aircrafts’ glider-like shape allows them to loiter at high altitudes, but “it is very hard to get the airplane down.”

In an operational scenario, pilots and sensors show up at the GCS about one hour prior to launch in order to ensure the station is properly configured, James says. The flight crew watches as the launch and recovery crew taxis the aircraft, which then takes off.

After running through another checklist, the L/R crew hands the Predator or Reaper over to the pilot and sensor operator. A typical shift lasts eight hours, James says. “Of that, I would be in the seat anywhere from four to seven hours.”

Operating a Predator or Reaper can sometimes be exciting, James says, but there is a lot of waiting involved. About 80 percent of most missions consists of the pilot flying in circles while the sensor operator locks onto a target.

“We’ll be doing this for hours on end and then all of a sudden, something will go dynamic,” he says. “We’ll figure out … that is a guy we need to follow, for example. He gets on a motorcycle and starts driving through an urban area, and now it’s like everything is going crazy.”

For much of the public, the words “Predator” and “Reaper” conjure up images of lethal drones launching Hellfire missiles or of dangerous flying mishaps.

Price and Torres stress that the Air Force is improving its safety record. Remotely piloted aircraft have fewer accidents per 100,000 flying hours than general manned aviation assets, Price says.

Launch and recovery teams now include a safety observer to help identify problems before it’s too late, Torres says. And if the satellite link is lost between the RPA and the operators, the aircraft would fly a preprogrammed route until the crew recovers it.

However, sometimes these safeguards can fail. During a 2013 accident, Air Force operators lost control of a Reaper during a training exercise near Fort Drum, New York. The $10.6 million aircraft crashed into Lake Ontario and was destroyed, states a report by the Air Combat Command Accident Investigation Board.

According to the military’s investigation of the incident, the mission control aircrew noticed problems with the MQ-9’s onboard GPS system and was in the middle of flying it back to Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield when it lost its communication link. The launch and recovery crew tried to gain control, “but the MQ-9 suffered an additional failure in its GPS and inertial navigation system. A few seconds later, the aircraft began an autopilot turn to the right that inverted the aircraft and eventually led to an unrecoverable flat spin.”

Another potential problem is that high operational tempo and sometimes stressful working conditions can lead to crew members suffering from low morale, according to an April Government Accountability Office report.

James contends that media reports have overstated RPA pilot dissatisfaction and the propensity of crew members to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Like any job, piloting an RPA can be dull, but it ultimately is rewarding and is becoming more respected within the Air Force, he says.

“As far as whether I’m involved or not … my experience operationally has always been that … if I’m there providing overwatch to friendly forces, I’m very much emotionally involved in that regardless of where I am physically,” he says.

Despite these issues, the demand for unmanned aircraft like the Predator and Reaper is growing around the world.

Dozens of countries are considering the purchase of remotely piloted aircraft, Stillman says. And as sales of RPAs increase, so does the potential market for training and simulation products.

CAE trains forces from the United Kingdom, Italy and France at Holloman. The Netherlands, Australia and Germany are currently in negotiations with the Air Force to go through the program.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from Asian nations recently on what we do and how we train crews,” Stillman says. “You can buy hardware and buy the RPA from a number of different sources who make these things. The technology is literally almost off the shelf now to build an RPA.

“Most of these companies that market and sell the hardware will also claim that they can train the crews,” but they can only teach how to operate the vehicle, he says. They can’t train operators and pilots how to deploy a weapon and use the aircraft to perform various mission sets.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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