Warplanes: Flight Pay For Non-Flyers

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October 15, 2009: In September, the U.S. Air Force created a career field for UAV operators. This will eventually include operators who are not, as is the case now, pilots of manned aircraft. In a surprise move, the air force also decided to give these non-pilot UAV operators flight pay ($840 a month). Flight pay is like combat pay, and given in recognition of the stress and danger of operating combat aircraft. But in this case, it's mainly an economic incentive to get the best qualified candidates to staff the new UAV operator force.

The sensor operators, who work with the UAV "pilots" as part of a team do not get flight pay, but they might. That is still under discussion. That's because the laws that determine who is eligible for flight pay, allows pilots to receive flight pay, even when they aren't flying every month. Enlisted flight crew regulations stipulate that they must fly regularly to receive flight pay. All members of the UAV crew will get wings, similar, but not identical, to those worn by the crews of manned aircraft.

The air force had, until quite recently, insisted that all ground controllers for UAVs be officers, as well as conventional pilots (of manned aircraft). All the other services use non-pilot NCOs to fly the UAVs, and have done so successfully for years. Most air force pilots would rather fly a manned aircraft, instead of sitting on the ground sending commands to a UAV. In the last year, the air force took eight non-pilot officers and trained them as UAV operators. To no one's surprise (at least outside the air force) these non-pilots turned out to be quite good at operating UAVs once they had completed the training course.

But this air force policy has created some other problems as well. UAV operators must continue to meet the same physical standards as pilots who operated manned aircraft. Thus UAV operators who have suffered leg injuries (broken toe, sprained ankle, or fractured leg) are told they cannot operate UAVs until their leg injury heals. A leg injury doesn't prevent a pilot from operating a UAV, but the regulations still insist that UAV operators follow the same medical restrictions as manned aircraft pilots. Some commanders have ignored this rule, when faced with a UAV operator shortage, and a limping UAV pilot who really wants to get back to work.

But now the air force has this growing force of UAVs, which are piloted from the ground. Increasingly, as the flight control software improves, the pilots do less piloting and more "controlling" (sending a few orders to the airborne UAV, and letting the software take care of the details.) Initially, the fighter and transport pilots ordered to perform UAV duty were not happy about it. In addition to fear of losing flight pay, they were not flying. While guiding a Predator or Global Hawk from the ground could have its exiting moments, there was no hiding the fact that you were sitting on the ground staring at a computer screen most of time. Worse yet, you couldn't "feel" the aircraft in flight. Pilots know well that this aspect of flying is one of the most enjoyable, exciting, and useful aspects of their job. Being a UAV jockey had none of the fun, challenge, or extra pay of real flying. The air force finally decided to give the UAV pilots flight pay, and promise them they could go back to "real aircraft" after two or three years of UAV work.

A fifteen week training course is used to train pilots to operate UAVs. When qualified pilots were taking this course, the washout rate was only two percent. Some pilots were even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force still considered UAV controller work as a "temporary assignment" for pilots of manned aircraft. But UAVs are now a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description. The air force is now putting ten non-pilot officers a month into the UAV operator training course. The washout rate has hardly budged.

The air force put some non-pilot officers through the UAV operator course, and offered them a career as a UAV operator. Some manned aircraft pilots have already asked for this because they see UAVs as the Next Big Thing and want to get in at the beginning. Others like the fact that UAV operators work from bases in the United States, meaning that they won't have to go overseas, without their families, constantly.

The other services save a lot of money by using NCOs as UAV controllers. Sergeants and Petty Officers are paid less, and they don't get flight pay. No one has been able to demonstrate any better performance on the part of the air force pilots who operate UAVs. In the long run, the enlisted UAV "pilots" will probably be superior, because they are making a career of this sort of thing.

Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator, are operated by a team. Typically, a Predator is attended to by a pilot and two sensor operators (NCOs), who monitor what the cameras and other sensors are picking up. Because a Predator is often in the air for 24 hours at a time, and is often flying over an active battlefield, and is looking real hard for specific stuff, the "crew" has to be changed every 4-6 hours to avoid fatigue. Moreover, each Predator unit might have several UAVs in the air at once. The new software means that each shift needs only one pilot, for up to four airborne Predators, and up to eight sensor operators. The pilots also operate the weapons, if any of the Predators are carrying missiles. But most of the time, Predators fly missions without using missiles.

The air force, because of their fixation on officer pilots running UAVs, has sometimes taken the lead in developing better flight control software. For their smaller (under ten pound) UAVs (used for base security), the operator cannot "fly" the UAV, but merely enters locations (waypoints) into the laptop used to control the aircraft, or uses a mouse to click on a spot on the map the UAV is to fly to. This way, the air force can justify not having an officer pilot involved.

But despite the air force initiative in developing better UAV flight control software, they have not gotten a lot of this stuff into service, at least for their most heavily used UAVs, the Predators and Reapers. The air force has a lot of civilian flight control software to draw on. Commercial airliners have had software that can land an aircraft without pilot intervention (and this is used to take the workload off pilots during difficult landings). The air force's largest UAV, the Global Hawk, is highly automated (it can take off, cross an ocean, and land, all by itself.) The navy is borrowing heavily from civilian flight control software to create a combat UAV that can land on an aircraft carrier by itself, and fly semi-autonomously in cooperation with manned aircraft. But in the air force, there is continued resistance to making too many of their UAVs autonomous, and put pilots out of work.

 


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