Attrition: The Great UAV Pilot Shortage


September 1,2008:  The U.S. Air Force has a record number (nearly a hundred) of Predator and Reaper UAVs in service. But so far this year, seven have been in major accidents (causing more than a million dollars in damage), and since 2003, another twenty have been hurt bad. Turns out that two-thirds of those losses are because of human error. Early on, most of the losses were due to equipment failure, but now the cause is usually the operator (a pilot retrained to operate a Predator) error. The air force blames this on the need to train so many new UAV operators quickly. But this is largely a self-inflicted problem. The air force insists on UAV operators already being manned aircraft pilots, and allowed most of them to spend only three years operating UAVs before returning to manned aircraft.

A typical Predator crew consists of an pilot and a sensor operator. 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. The air force insists that only existing pilots (of manned aircraft) be trained as Predator operators. The army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage.

Ever since World War II, there's been a controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II, the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) had enlisted pilots, as did the navy. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants") selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground.

As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (with 2.4 million personnel, and 80,000 aircraft, at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander (General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on only officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting.

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.

There is 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.

Meanwhile, crew and satellite bandwidth shortages mean that only about 29 Predators and Reapers can be in the air at the same time. But that number will increase, and the pilot shortage will remain until the air force has enough career UAV operators available.





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