On January 5th 2009, the United States Air Force will launch perhaps the most ambitious experiment in the annals of air warfare. For the first time in history, officers who have no aviation experience will learn to fly unmanned combat drones into battle without ever setting foot into a real aircraft.
This dramatic shift comes as the USAF ramps up operations in order to meet the surging demand for aerial surveillance assets in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to meet the challenge head on, the USAF looked at “innovative ways to get the war fighter what he needs to get the job done” said Lt. Col. Tom Marocchini, an A1 air operations officer at USAF headquarters, resulting in a sea-change in Air Force attitudes towards the training of drone operators.
Initially 10 officers, most of whom have no aviation experience, will be selected for what has been termed a “beta test” by senior Air Force officials, said Brigadier General Carlton D. Everhart of the USAF’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC). These officers are to be the pioneers for what is hoped will become a brand new career field for the operators of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Everhart said.
Selection standards for this initial cadre of aviators will be rigorous, Everhart said. While some physiological requirements are relaxed compared to the pilots of manned aircraft, the service is “maintaining the same eye sight requirements, including depth perception and color vision”, said Colonel Curt Sheldon, an A3-OA air operations officer at USAF headquarters. Additionally, many of the same academic requirements have also been maintained, including passing the Test of Basic Aviation Skills (TBAS) and Air Force Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT), as these have been shown to predict success in the air, Sheldon said.
Training for this new class of officers will begin much the same way as those entering the regular USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) pipeline. As training starts, the class will undergo Initial Flight Screening (IFS) to teach the students “air sense” and the emergency procedures needed to move on to flying more sophisticated machines, Everhart said. “Teaching air sense is the biggest open question. How long does it take to teach air sense? How long does it take for students to grasp the concepts?” are all areas of concern to the USAF, Everhart said.
The next stop is Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) in Oklahoma. Here the students will undergo academic and simulator training for instrument flight, air navigation, holding patterns and most importantly deconflicting with other aircraft traffic, Everhart said. The new aviators will also learn the finer points of how to operate with Air Force Air Tasking Orders (ATO) in order to fly in a combat zone and Crew Resource Management (CRM) in order to coordinate with their sensor operator. The biggest difference between the regular UPT course and the UAS operator course is that the UAS operators will not actually fly the T-6 during their training, Everhart explained- all the flying is done in a simulator.
The final step before entering flight training on a Predator UAS is the Joint Air Ground Operations Group (JAGOG). Here, the students will learn to coordinate with the ground forces that they are to support, Everhart said. The school not only teaches the finer points of the close air support and air interdiction to pilots but also serves as the training unit for the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) who clear the pilots to unleash their weapons on the enemy during such missions. Everhart explained that this phase of the training will be critical in developing the student’s “air sense”.
The final phase of the new training pipeline will be at the MQ-1 Predator Formal Training Unit (FTU) at Creech AFB, Nevada. At the FTU, the new aviators will attend what is known as the b-course where they will learn to fly and fight with the MQ-1 Predators. The b-course is designed for new pilots who have no experience in any major weapons system to learn the basics of flying an aircraft in combat, Everhart explained.
Once the b-course is completed, the new aviators are basic aircraft qualified. However, the aviators must still complete the mission qualification course at their operational squadron in order to be considered full fledged combat pilots. If the students prove to be successful, the USAF will make a decision on creating a permanent new career field for UAS operators. Additionally, AETC also hopes to eventually create a FTU for every individual UAS type, Everhart said. Sheldon cautions however, that while he expects the new training program to succeed, the “success of the beta testing is not a foregone conclusion.”
While the fate of the dedicated UAS pipeline is decided, the USAF is concurrently embarking on a program to take 100 new graduates from UPT per year and send them directly to a Predator, Global Hawk or Reaper UAS. Unlike the participants of the beta test program who will be initially restricted to the Predator aircraft, the UPT graduates will be allowed to fly any UAS in the inventory to which they are assigned, Sheldon said. Also unlike those graduating from the beta test program, the UPT graduates will not remain in the unmanned drone business permanently.
“The Chief (of Staff) has made the commitment that these pilots will return to flying a manned weapons system” after a three year tour flying a UAS, Everhart said. Similarly, those USAF pilots who were involuntarily reassigned to flying combat drones under the Transformational Aircrew Management Initiative- 21 (TAMI-21) program might also eventually return to flying manned aircraft as circumstances change, Sheldon said.
Sheldon, who is a former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, said for those UPT graduates who are assigned to flying drones, the future is bright. Sheldon explains that not only do these pilots “get into the fight” immediately, they gain a breadth and depth of experience which will be of value later on in their careers and that experience will be fully applicable to manned weapons systems. In Iraq or Afghanistan, “when you get a call for a Close Air Support platform, the most requested platform is a UAS,” Everhart said, “with a UAS on station, you can watch, direct troop movements” in addition to attacking the enemy directly. “There is a lot of capability there, the future is very bright” Everhart said. Sheldon added, “Fully half of the aircraft that the Air Force will be buying in the future are going be unmanned. This community is going to be the second largest after the F-16 community. Getting in early is not a bad thing.”
While the ultimate fate of the dedicated UAS operator career field has yet to be decided, Everhart, Sheldon and Marocchini said they are optimistic, pointing out that the USAF only accepts highly qualified personnel into the ranks. While it has yet to be determined if the UAS operators will be “rated” i.e. part of the elite Air Force fraternity of aviators, Everhart said that he personally believes that it will happen, adding that “these guys are real warriors.” Sheldon, meanwhile, would only say that they are in the data-gathering phase, however should the UAS operators eventually be considered rated officers, he said that “it could potentially change the face of the Air Force.”