Murphy's Law: Limping Pilots Keep UAVs On The Ground


July 10, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is facing some interesting problems while trying to obtain sufficient pilots for its unmanned aircraft (mainly Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks). The air force insists 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. Most air force pilots would rather fly a manned aircraft, instead of sitting on the ground sending commands to a UAV.

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.

The air force has to deal with the fact that UAVs, while remotely piloted aircraft, don't have to be operated by someone who can also fly a manned aircraft. Then there's the decades old 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) and navy both had enlisted pilots. 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 (2.4 million troops 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 officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants" by making most pilots "Warrant Officers" (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their time on their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties.) Many air force pilots envy the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do, fly a helicopter or aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the air force and go work for an airline. But often they stay in the air force reserve, and fly warplanes on weekends, and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.

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 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. Since qualified pilots are taking this course, the washout rate is only two percent. Some pilots are even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force still considers UAV controller work as a "temporary assignment." UAVs have not yet become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description.

The air force has been putting some non-pilot officers through the UAV operator course, and is offering them a career as a UAV operator. Some manned aircraft pilots have already asked for this. Some of these pilots 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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