Attrition: The Great Predator Pilot Shortage


August 10, 2008:  The U.S. Air Force is hustling to train more operators for its Predator and Reaper UAVs. To assist in this effort, they are outsourcing some of this work. The University of North Dakota has been given a $50 million training contract, and has set up a Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, the new term for UAV) Center of Excellence. 

Currently, there are over a hundred Predators and Reapers in operation, and over 200 crews (a pilot and senor operator). The air force trained 105 Predator crews in 2006, and 120 crews last year. The air force uses pilots of manned aircraft (fighters, bombers and transports) to operate the UAVs. These pilots undergo a few months training, and then spend nearly three years operating Predators. Then they return to operating manned aircraft.

This rotation policy has caused a shortage of Predator crews. Since Predators can stay in the air for up to 24 hours per sortie, multiple crews are required to support that. New operator equipment was developed to enable one pilot to handle more than one Predator simultaneously. But this did not work out as well as expected, and pilots were rarely able to deal with more than two Predators at a time. 

The air force has started a program to recruit non-pilots as UAV operators. These officers would make a career of UAVs, and not transfer out after a few years. But it will be another three or four years before these operators take over.





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