The U.S. Air Force has activated a
new training squadron, the 26th Weapons Squadron, to prepare crews for Predator
and Reaper UAVs. The air force already has sixteen Weapons Squadrons for its
other combat aircraft. The 26th is the first new Weapons Squadron created since
2002 (when units were created to train crews for F-117s and B-2). The 26th was
first created in 1940, for training P-51 pilots. The air force has already been
taking instructors out of training units and transferring them to UAV units, so
this is an effort to replace those losses. The air force is still working out
the best way to train UAV crews (typically an officer to operate the aircraft
and fire any weapons, and an NCO to operate the sensors.) One of the growing training
issues is how to deal with the growing abilities of UAVs to operate completely
by themselves. This means facing the fact that each Predator has a crew of
three; two humans and one software system.
years, the air force has been scrambling to supply enough operators for its
growing fleet of UAVs. They now have over a hundred Predator and Reaper UAVs in
service, as well as over a dozen Global Hawks. To that end, ten percent of
recent graduates from pilot schools will spend three years operating UAVs,
before going on to flying manned aircraft. Meanwhile, the air force is
recruiting non-flying officers to be UAV operators. Many of these officers
could have been pilots, but were prevented from doing so because of physical
limitations (poor eyesight or inability to handle the gyrations of aircraft).
The air force has long insisted that UAV operators already be manned aircraft
pilots, and allowed most of them to spend only three years operating UAVs
before returning to manned aircraft. This has limited the number of UAV
uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator
shortage. The air force has recently made UAV operator a career field, not a
temporary assignment (as it had been for years). The air force is also
beginning to train non-pilot officers to be UAV operators, and is under
pressure (both from within, and outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be
career UAV operators.
Predator crew consists of several pilots and sensor operators. That's because the Predator
stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is often used for each sortie.
Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators being brought back to base before
their fuel is used up.
also help on the way from the developers of flight control software. Many UAVs
can fly quite well without any pilot at all. This is basically an adaptation of
"automatic pilot" systems (which are now mostly software and sensors)
that are now capable of doing practically all the flying for commercial
aircraft. So it was no big jump to install these systems in UAVs and let them
go cylon. Well, OK, not completely robotic, and certainly not self-aware. But
Global Hawk UAVs are sent across the oceans on automatic (including take-offs
and landings. Using more of these systems for Predator and Reaper, eliminates a
lot of the human error problems. This solution has been a trend in aircraft and
automobile design for over two decades.
crew and satellite bandwidth shortages mean that only about 30 Predators and
Reapers can be in the air at the same time. But that number is increasing, and
the pilot shortage will remain until the air force has enough career UAV
first eight months of this year, Predators and Reapers flew over 4,400 sorties,
each lasting, on average, about 18 hours. Each sortie resulted in finding about
two targets. About 12 percent of those sorties were in direct support of ground
troops under fire, and about 22 percent were in support of ground troops
engaged in raids.