RPA Ramp Up

June 1, 2011

Despite the anticipated drawdown of operations in Afghanistan, the Air Force is actually ramping up its production of pilots for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. That’s because the service remains under direction to achieve 65 round-the-clock air patrols by the end of Fiscal 2013, and Afghanistan is only the most pressing among many demands for RPA coverage.

Combatant commanders from the Pacific to South America and Europe are jostling to snap up MQ-9s and MQ-1s as soon as they become available. As a result, USAF is committing itself long-term to the remotely piloted mission, instituting a new career field and new undergraduate RPA training (URT) pipeline that will graduate its first pilots this year.

While the training pipeline was “certainly designed to help meet the most pressing need now, … the demand for this type of capability from all the combatant commanders, not just the ones in CENTCOM … is incredible,” said Maj. Gen. James A. Whitmore, Air Education and Training Command director of intelligence, operations, and nuclear integration.

An MQ-9 Reaper makes its final approach at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. There has been a 1,200 percent growth in demand for RPAs in Afghanistan. (USAF photo by TSgt. Chad Chisholm)

A Completely New Career Field

“There are things that are happening in the Pacific theater that can certainly use the information that a Predator or Reaper can provide. … The same thing in SOUTHCOM,” explained Whitmore, adding that even if the requirement in Afghanistan “shrinks significantly,” commands are “standing in line” to use USAF’s drone force for everything from counterinsurgency to counternarcotics, maritime surveillance, and search and rescue.

“There may be some redistribution, but I don’t see a significant decrease in the requirement,” Whitmore said. “We’re looking long-term in the sense that we’ve decided to stand up a separate career field … [and] that tells me this is going to be around awhile.”

Early in the Afghanistan campaign, when the term “UAV,” for unmanned aerial vehicle first entered the lexicon, drone pilots were simply pulled from other aircraft. They were quickly trained and hastily pressed into service filling needed RPA slots.

The demand for the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability offered by the UAVs continued to mount, however, and the new target of 65 RPA orbits by 2013—a 1,200 percent growth in operations since the war in Afghanistan began—rendered the ad-hoc manning scheme untenable. To operate around the clock, each orbit requires 10 aircrews, including a pilot and sensor operator. That means USAF needs an estimated 1,350 RPA crews by 2013, not including reserves, according to AETC estimates.

For all major weapons systems in the inventory, the Air Force maintains “20 percent over and above what we need to specifically accomplish the mission,” stressed then-Brig. Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Combat Command operations director. Addressing RPA pilots at Holloman AFB, N.M., last June, Goldfein said these additional crews are essential to maintaining “the flexibility to fully man the mission.”

Until last July when the force reached a critical mass of 600 pilots, training struggled just to keep pace with combat requirements. With no spare capacity, Air Force officials were forced to lock trained operators into the RPA career field.

Facing these daunting target-inventory numbers, “it became pretty obvious that we weren’t going to be able to continue. …We were going to need to come up with another way of producing pilots,” recalled Whitmore, and in early 2009, AETC began testing a solution.

AETC Commander Gen. Edward Rice Jr. speaks to members of the 12th Flying Training Wing at Randolph AFB, Tex. The 558th FTS is now training new airmen to be remotely piloted aircraft operators. (USAF photo)

Splicing together elements of several existing programs, AETC’s beta test aimed to see if drone operators could be quickly and effectively trained in less than the 200 hours required for full-up undergraduate pilot training.

“We wanted to build a program so we could take somebody right out of a commissioning source and bring them into the pipeline, just like we do other undergraduate flight training pipelines,” Whitmore said. That meant replacing UPT with a very basic flying and airmanship skill set, tailored to RPAs. Establishing a three-stage prototype conduit within 45 days of the go-order, AETC fine-tuned its experiment over five beta classes before normalizing the pipeline late last summer, activating the 558th Flying Training Squadron to train pilots at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas last May.

Branded “one-eights” for USAF’s newly minted 18X specialty code, the first regular class of career RPA operators entered the pipeline at Randolph in January, as AETC continued to improve the system behind them.

“We’re in the process of standing up a completely new career field now. … We’ve just developed an RPA pilot- specific syllabus that we’re rolling out in Pueblo [Colo.], pretty much as we speak,” Whitmore explained in March.

One-eights begin flight training at the controls of a light single-engine Diamond DA-20 Katana trainer, flying 30 to 38 hours under the tutelage of a contract instructor from Doss Aviation in Pueblo. Progressing from ground school through solo, students flew nighttime and cross-country sorties, coming “just shy of what somebody would get going through a civilian, private pilot’s license,” Whitmore noted.

Since USAF already contracted with Doss Aviation to provide initial flight screening for regular pilots, the Pueblo location was a logical starting point for developing the airmanship stage of RPA training. As with the screening syllabus, beta trainees initially flew 13 to 14 hours, learning basics such as how to take off, land, and handle an aircraft.

Flying with 70 percent former military pilots, the intro provided excellent exposure to the Air Force cockpit environment, but proved insufficient to prepare trainees to actually fly Predators and Reapers in ACC’s advanced training. After only 13 hours, “initial betas didn’t have enough air time on them,” and lacked the experience needed for successful conversion to real drone operations at Creech AFB, Nev., Whitmore said. In response, officials more than doubled flight time at Pueblo.

SSgt. Nicolas Gassiott, a Texas Air National Guardsman, explains the sensor functions on an MQ-1 Predator to airmen at Randolph. (USAF photo by Rich McFadden)

The Customers’ Reaction

“The net effect was [that] they got about 30 hours or so of flying training,” he explained, a change “strictly based on the feedback from our customers in ACC who said, ‘We need these folks prepped a little bit better in airmanship.’ “

From the cockpit at Pueblo, the next stop is the RPA Instrument Qualification Course (RIQ) at Randolph. Like Pueblo, the all-simulator track was formed around existing assets. “We already had pilot-instructor training going on here at Randolph,” Whitmore said, and were able to set up a program using the instructor pilot school’s T-6 Texan II simulators at the base.

Within six weeks, training officials invented an RIQ syllabus combining 36 to 40 hours on the T-6 simulator with roughly 140 hours of academic instruction, culminating in a simulated final “check ride.”

The final stage, developed uniquely for RPA pilots, is known as the RPA Fundamentals Course, also at Randolph. During this final stage of undergraduate training, one-eights gain insight into the basic operation of “sensors, tactics, air tasking orders,” and the multitude of skills needed to ensure success transitioning to the Predator.

At the end of the fundamentals course, pilots and sensor operators come together for the first time. As a graduation exercise, “the two of them work together as a team in a mission scenario on about four sorties or so,” Whitmore noted. Each member of the crew gets familiar with the coordination and communication skills needed to operate the aircraft once arriving at Creech or Holloman.

The crews are seated side-by-side in the purpose-built Predator/Reaper Integrated Mission Environment, a procedures trainer closely replicating the Predator’s “cockpit.” It has received “rave reviews” since its debut last summer, Whitmore said.

Since MQ-1s and MQ-9s are both “crew platforms,” training sensor operators is every bit as important as training pilots. Historically, “just like on the pilot side, we’d been taking sensor operators off other platforms,” admitted Whitmore, adding, “We’ve realized that we’re going to need to start growing sensor operators as well.”

Beginning with the standard Aircrew Fundamentals Course for USAF enlisted aircrew, sensors airmen undergo a six-week basic sensor operator course before graduating with their wings. “They learn about just very generic principles of how sensors work,” including geometry, tactics, communication, and the essentials of operating Predators and Reapers as weapons, articulated Whitmore.

Defying expectations, many betas in the latter classes compared favorably to retrained USAF pilots in advanced training at Creech and Holloman. Though results varied widely from one individual to another, “I think so far this has been a pretty good news story,” Whitmore asserted. Having now adjusted the course over five trial runs, the Air Force is confident undergrad RPA training is improved enough to greatly accelerate students’ progress from entry to Predator conversion.

“Time will tell on whether we’ve got it exactly right on the 18Xers and the new course. I suspect there’ll be more tweaks that we need to do as we learn more about our graduates, but I think they’re off to a pretty good start,” said Whitmore.

Since the first pilots and sensor operators are still passing through the overhauled pipeline at Randolph, “we don’t know what the customer’s going to say,” said Whitmore, though he suspects “they’re going to like what they’re getting.”

While the 18X career field is open to airmen across the force, in keeping with standards for regular pilot and combat systems officers, RPA slots remain highly competitive, ensuring the “highest likelihood of success,” assured Whitmore.

CMSAF James Roy, at Lackland AFB, Tex., briefs AETC leaders, including Maj. Gen. James Whitmore (seated right). Eventually, AETC hopes to have 170 to 180 RPA pilots go through the new training program every year. The command is building flexibility into the program in anticipation of other services and allies using it to train their own remotely piloted aircraft pilots. (USAF photo by Alan Boedeker)

A Corps of Professionals

Even with the training course in place, however, the Air Force will continue drawing a small percentage of pilots directly from manned aircraft, to continue to bring their experience and seasoning to the RPA force.

Though USAF officials have yet to establish an official target end strength for RPA pilots, “as we’re building and trying to formalize this program, we’re looking at approximately 60 or so pilots going through” annually, growing to about 170 to 180 annually over the next few years, Whitmore said.

From the outset, AETC has factored in flexibility beyond 180, anticipating interest from other service branches and allies in the years ahead.

The stand-up has proved successful, but some hurdles remain, such as convincing the Federal Aviation Administration that drone pilots trained by the Air Force are safe and competent to operate in US airspace.

USAF boasts a long tradition of self-certifying pilots, requiring no additional license or civil certificate.

“We’re the ones who are not only providing the training but are accepting the responsibility to make sure that those folks are capable and have the skills set to operate in the national airspace,” said Whitmore, emphasizing that for RPAs, “we believe that’s the way we should move forward.”

The FAA has been invited to observe the new RPA training program, said Whitmore, adding that “from down here in the trenches,” the feedback has been “very positive.”

Though the immediate focus is on the near term, “we’re looking long term in the sense that we’ve decided to stand up a separate career field,” he said. Deciding to formalize and standardize the RPA pilot 18X career field demonstrates commitment to developing a corps of RPA professionals.

USAF is already training more UAV pilots than F-16 pilots. Within two to three years, Air Force officials predict, drone pilots will outnumber F-16 pilots, numbering as high as 1,100.