Warplanes: End Of An Era For Test Pilots


February 18, 2011: The U.S. Air Force recently graduated the first of twelve test pilots for UAVs. This immediately brought forth comments that the new guy was not a "real test pilot." That had to hurt, but the air force desperately needs skilled test pilots for its UAVs. In the last decade, 57 Predator and Reaper UAVs have been lost to accidents. The UAV loss rate is currently 3-6 times that of manned aircraft. These UAV losses were often because of design or operating flaws that could have been uncovered by a skilled test pilot. The UAV test pilots will be recruited from among the growing number of UAV operators. While most of those UAV drivers were recruited from among bomber, transport and fighter pilots, more and more of them are non-pilots, with, at most, a license to fly single engine commercial aircraft. As jet powered combat UAVs enter service in the next decade, the air force may find it necessary to recruit only fighter pilots with experience operating UAVs. It will also become more important for UAV test pilots to have engineering degrees and experience with how flight control software is created.

The U.S. Navy has long had UAV test pilots for its drone aircraft (older aircraft converted to be flown from the ground for air-to-air weapons testing), and specially built target drones (UAVs). But the navy will now be training their UAV test pilots to help with developing combat UAVs that will operate from carriers, as well as those that will begin replacing manned aircraft for maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare.

While test flying isn't as dangerous as being in the aircraft, it's critical for the troops on the ground whose lives are saved by the availability of UAVs. Thus this new type of test pilot will not only save aircraft, but will also saves lives of soldiers and marines fighting the ground war. Actually, it will save the lives of pilots as well. The air force and navy are developing jet powered UAVs to carry out dangerous missions that otherwise would be undertaken by piloted aircraft. The new jet UAVs will also operate in cooperation with piloted aircraft. Thus the growing importance on making UAVs more reliable and safer to operate around in the air. While being a test pilot is more dangerous than any other military flying job, it has gotten a lot safer since the 1950s, when about one a week died worldwide. Now a few die each year, and it tends to make the news.


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