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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- A significant milestone for remotely piloted aircraft was ushered in July 10, with the first student sortie in an innovative T-6 Texan II simulator.
The new setup has dramatically increased the ability to train remotely piloted aircraft pilots, and the ingenuity behind the new simulator saves the Air Force millions of dollars. Completing the same training using traditional T-6 simulators, which cost about $3 million each, would have cost upward of $27 million total, which doesn't count the price of a new building it would require to house them.
Training RPA pilots is increasingly critical to mission success, as they are relied on heavily by our armed forces.
"RPAs are the most requested asset in the combat theater," said Maj. Gen. Timothy Zadalis, AETC Director of Intelligence, Operations and Nuclear Integration. "This capability continues to save lives and provide support down range."
When Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz solidified the RPA career field in May 2010, overloading the training system with new aviators became a significant challenge. Robert Englehart, Deputy Chief of Air Education and Training Command's RPA Training Branch, said that with the increase in demand for RPA pilots came the need to expand the capability to train them, but expanding wasn't as simple as it sounds.
"We had to be creative in our solution to this problem, as the increase in need for RPA pilots was paired with shrinking defense budgets," Englehart said. "By staying with the T-6, AETC is able to use courseware and support materials the Air Force has already paid for. AETC really stepped up and found a low-cost solution relatively quickly."
"These simulators use high-end desktop computers with powerful graphics cards to display the T-6 cockpit and instrument displays," said Lt. Col. Scott Cerone, 558th Flying Training Squadron commander. "Real-world surroundings are projected from three high-powered projectors to give the pilots a 180-degree view of the world outside their cockpits."
Another major payoff results from the significantly lower cost of replacing these components compared to those in the traditional simulator. Significant savings are also found in the time and cost of training, as roughly $515,000 is spent to train a traditional pilot versus around $33,000 to train an RPA pilot.
Traditional pilots undergo 48 weeks of training, whereas RPA pilots train in a rigorous 22 week program before they are sent to their units to train on specific aircraft.
Undergraduate RPA Training is composed of three courses. The first course is an initial flight screening in which RPA pilots learn the basics of commanding an aircraft. They then come to the 558th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph AFB, the single source of all Air Force URT for the RPA instrument qualification course. They then move on to an RPA fundamentals course, in which they get grounding in combat operations on a simplified MQ-9 Reaper simulator.
In the first two courses, pilots learn to use the radio, work with air traffic control, learn instrument procedures, situational awareness, Airmanship and all the pilot-in-command skills they need to fly. When traditional pilots graduate from training, they spend some time as a co-pilot or wingman, where they are able to learn under the mentorship of a more experienced aviator. RPA pilots do not get this experience, and thus are expected to demonstrate their pilot-in-command skills very quickly.
This tiered approach to training was beta tested in 2009 before Schwartz formalized the program in 2010. In the 2009-2010 time frame, the Air Force produced roughly 45 RPA pilots. In fiscal year 2013, the 558th FTS plans to produce around 165.
"Dubbed 'the eyes in the sky', these machines and the pilots who operate them are essential, constantly watching our troops on the ground every minute of every day and providing reconnaissance and strike support when needed," Zadalis said.