Putting the Pilot in the RPAs

July 1, 2010

Air Force leaders are working to build a new pilot culture in the service, creating a career track designed to turn officers without prior flying experience into operators of remotely piloted aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator.

Officially institutionalized in June as Undergraduate RPA Training, the new course evolved from an experiment nearly two years in the making—called a beta test—which indicated that the syllabus will likely need to continue evolving.

A handful of officers have already passed the beta test to learn how to fly RPAs, and were awarded special wings recognizing their achievement. Some of those pilots are now operating drones in combat.

However, the experiment showed that candidates needed more actual flying time, more airmanship training, and more “seasoning” than initially expected, according to Air Education and Training Command officials.

The original idea was to create a course that would take less time and cost less than standard pilot training.

A1C Caleb Force (r) points out targeting information to 1st Lt. Jorden Smith, a Predator pilot, during simulator training at Creech AFB, Nev. (USAF photo by SrA. Nadine Y. Barclay)

Lt. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements, said the step of formalizing URT signifies the Air Force’s commitment to RPAs and the importance of the aircraft “to the joint community.” The first official URT class will begin in October.

In February, AETC commander Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz said it could take up to five years to create a formalized URT course. “I can guarantee you we don’t have it 100 percent correct,” Lorenz said then, but added that AETC was working hard to get the kinks out. However, there were no glaring deficiencies reported in the training of beta candidates, Lorenz said.

Standard undergraduate pilot training (UPT) takes about a year. The beta course—not including initial qualification training—was originally expected to take about five months (15 weeks class time), but increased in length to about six months (22 weeks, class) as more flying time was added to the curriculum and other coursework was expanded.

In September 2008, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, raised the alarm that USAF was short of pilots for the RPA mission, and he announced two steps to address the shortfall.

First, he directed that 100 graduates of UPT each year would move on to learn how to fly drones, instead of manned airplanes. The second step was establishing the beta test, to see if those without prior pilot training could master the skills necessary to fly the RPAs.

Flying an MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper is not as simple as sitting at a computer display with a joystick and a satellite hookup. The pilots must communicate with military and civil air control systems, file flight plans, be able to fly both visually and by instruments, have knowledge of the rules of war, and understand the use of various kinds of weapons. Like other pilots, they must know emergency procedures, have a knowledge of aerodynamics and meteorology, and be able to work with other pilots and enlisted sensor operators, as well as troops on the ground needing surveillance or reconnaissance backup or close air support.

An MQ-9 Reaper takes off for a night mission from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by TSgt. Efren Lopez)

For a decade, pilots of RPAs (also called unmanned aerial vehicles) were drawn from the ranks of rated USAF pilots in all other systems, from fighters and bombers to transports. The first classes of betas, however, were drawn from a variety of career fields, according to Lt. Col. Bryan Runkle, who directed development of the beta curriculum at Randolph AFB, Tex.

Hand On Stick, Up In the Air

“Some are second lieutenants,” fresh from ROTC, Officer Training School, or the Air Force Academy, Runkle said. “There have been captains from a cross section of career fields: … [communications] officers, security forces, medical, you name it.” A few are not strangers to the cockpit: The beta program has inducted some navigators and combat systems officers from other types of aircraft.

Breedlove said URT candidates will be chosen from accession boards or from an undergraduate flying training board. The URT course will closely follow the beta test.

The beta classes—several are still under way—begin at Pueblo, Colo., where students receive more than 18 hours of flight instruction in small aircraft from a contractor, over a period of six weeks, Runkle said. This phase of the program mirrors the screening program that candidates for UPT receive. The flight instruction is to ensure that the candidates are not coming in cold. They’ll have had some time with hands on throttle and stick, up in the air.

After Pueblo, the classes move on to Randolph, which is the schoolhouse for RPA pilot and sensor operator training.

Their first course is called RPA Instrument Qualification (RIQ). During this phase, the betas take academic instruction in basic flying, and they receive 36 training missions in a simulator of the Air Force’s T-6 Texan II pilot training aircraft—but not the real aircraft.

During the 10-week RIQ phase, “we also expose them to a flying environment as much as we can,” Runkle said. Just like their UPT counterparts, they have a flight room, daily emergency procedure quizzes—better known as “standups”—as well as weather briefings, and “we try to put them through the normal stressors that a pilot training student goes through,” Runkle said.

In fact, the betas train alongside UPT students. “[They] share a flight room with the T-6 squadron here, they see how an operations desk works, they learn about go/no-go procedures, [and] sign off [on] all their required reading.”

The newly minted remotely piloted aircraft pilot wings.

After completing the RIQ, the betas move on to the one-month-long RPA Fundamentals Course, also at Randolph. Here they are joined by UPT graduates headed into Predators and Reapers, but who have never been assigned to a combat system before.

Graduates of UPT previously went directly to Creech AFB, Nev., for instruction in their drone system, but officials “realized after a short while that these guys were showing up without having already had an assignment as a flight lead or a wingman. They were lacking some basic knowledge and terminology and combat planning. So this course was created to fill that void,” Runkle explained.

At the fundamentals course, the students take classes in sensor theory, radar, electro-optical theory, command and control, weapons and mission planning, air defense systems, and how to communicate with ground troops.

There is even a physiology class, for while RPA pilots won’t have to endure G forces or sudden decompression, they still must know how to stay alert for 12-hour missions by managing their sleep cycles, diet, and personal health, Runkle noted.

Unique in the Air Force, the fundamentals course also puts the officer pilots together with the enlisted sensor operator students. They sit side by side, receiving the same instruction. This is done deliberately, because in no other Air Force systems are officer and enlisted “aircrew” working side by side as a two-person team. Enlisted sensor operators must learn to communicate with their pilots and speak up if they see something wrong or need the pilot to move the aircraft to let the sensors have a better view, Runkle said. So far, there has been no reason for concern about fraternization or “any breakdown in good order and discipline.”

About half the sensor operators are cross-training from other enlisted career fields, he said; the rest are all fresh from basic training at Lackland AFB, Tex.

(Prior to the RPA Fundamentals Course, enlisted sensor operators go through two programs: the Aircrew Fundamentals Course and then the Basic Sensor Operator Training course. Over two months, they learn how electro-optical cameras work, how infrared detectors work, and how to manipulate the sensors on the aircraft. Although a radar sensor equips the MQ-9 Reaper, a radar element to the course hasn’t been added yet.)

The RPA Fundamentals Course gives a brief introduction to the systems on the MQ-1 and MQ-9, but is more of a general course on sensors and communications. One block of instruction centers on full-motion video, and how the RPA figures in the overall scheme of an air war.

There are also 11 hours of flying a desktop simulator “that models the sensors that are on the RPA.”

At the end of the course, students have a “capstone” event in which they must plan a mission to observe and attack a target.

“They work together as a team to come up with a plan to utilize all the different air assets out there, how to mitigate all the threats, … and obviously how to incorporate the RPA into their plan,” Runkle said.

All told, the program for nonpilots lasts about five months. That’s half the length of UPT, and with substantially less flying time. That figure doesn’t include training the betas on their ultimate weapon system, the Predator or Reaper, which takes place at Creech and can last several more months before the betas get their RPA wings.

A Bigger Net Needed

However, after the first two beta classes went through the program, it was decided to increase the flight screening phase by two weeks, “to give them more exposure to operations in three dimensions [to] increase their situational awareness and flight discipline skills,” Runkle said. The flight screening phase will increase the in-the-cockpit actual flying time from 18 to 37 hours.

“Right now, the feedback is mixed,” he noted. “Some of the betas are doing real well,” others are having some difficulty.

“The good news is, they’re all making it through training, and as expected, some are doing better than others. We hope that by adding some more flying time initially at Pueblo, that will help improve performance down the road.”

Asked if the beta program, if it continues to accrue flying hours and length, might begin to rival UPT in duration and cost, Lorenz said, “That’s an excellent point.” Time will tell if the RPA program winds up being as elaborate as UPT; the plan is that it will not, and save both money and the time it takes to get new RPA pilots.

Lorenz said the Air Force must throw a bigger net to bring in RPA pilots. The service envisions “a crew ratio … of 10 to one,” or 10 pilots to each aircraft.

“That is huge,” Lorenz said.

He believes that the ultimate mix of RPA pilots will include “a continuum” of experience, ranging from veteran pilots on other manned aircraft, to UPT graduates who go straight to RPAs, and finally to RPA pilots who have not flown operational manned aircraft.He hopes to have a compact disc ready by August [July update: by 2011] which will be half game, half simulator of a Predator mission. Lorenz expects the disc will attract people to volunteer for RPA training.

USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pins remotely piloted aircraft wings onto the uniform of Capt. Steve Petrizzo during the graduation ceremony for the first RPA pilot class. (USAF photo by A1C Brett Clashman)

Those who go through the beta program and successfully learn to fly either the MQ-1 or MQ-9 drones receive a newly designed set of wings and an aeronautical rating of RPA pilot. They also receive RPA Pilot Incentive Pay, which is equal to the Aviation Career Incentive Pay received by other pilots. They incur a six-year commitment to fly drones. In the future, RPA pilots are expected to be able to broaden their careers by moving into other fields.

However, for the moment, they are in such demand that “there has been an RPA enterprise freeze put in place,” an Air Staff official said. “Essentially, and with very few exceptions, pilots in the RPA enterprise will have to remain in it.” When the career field is “normalized,” RPA pilots will be able to take advantage of career broadening opportunities, and go to their professional military education courses without delay, he said.

No specific end-point was set initially for the beta test, but the establishment of the formal URT course means it will draw to a close late this summer. [July update: Beta ends February 2011; formal URT begins fall 2010.] The URT course will be sharpened up, with elements added if Creech officials feel they should be.

RPA pilots will be tracked after they enter service, to see if, long-term, they perform any differently than their UPT counterparts. So far, five beta test classes, of about 10 students each, are in some stage of completion. However, the Air Staff official said that “due to the small sample size, … it is premature to assign significance to … early findings” of the Air Force Research Lab, which is conducting the study.

The creation of URT means it won’t be necessary to increase the numbers of UPT graduates each year, to fill the ranks of RPA operators.