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Training Pilots for Pilotless Aircraft
The U.S. military services are flying about 1,000 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) of varying sizes and capabilities in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq. Some are hand-thrown, intended to give a Marine a look at "whatís on the other side of the hill." Others, controlled from vans in Nevada, fly at 35,000 feet, and provide a look at vast areas.
Most UAVs are operated by the Air Force, with an increasing number being also flown by the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy. The Coast Guard will soon be operating a vertical take-off and landing UAV from its cutters.
There are differences, however, in how these UAVs are flown. Obviously, the smaller, hand-thrown and truck-launched UAVs are controlled at the company and battalion levels. The larger UAVs operated by the Army and Marine Corps are "piloted" by ground officers and senior enlisted men. But until now the Air Force has insisted that the larger UAVs that it controls be flown by rated pilots. That requirement is coming to an end.
"This will certainly be a cultural change," Brigadier General Lyn Sherlock, director of air operations on the Air Staff, told reporters during a press briefing in September.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor has written that "to meet commanders' insatiable demands for unmanned aircraft, the Air Force is launching two new training programs, including an experimental one that would churn out up to 1,100 desperately needed pilots to fly the drones over Iraq and Afghanistan."
A senior Air Force officer told the Associated Press that its goal is to have 50 unmanned combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day, largely over Iraq and Afghanistan, by the end of September 2011.Currently there are 30 UAV patrols.
According to Ms. Baldor, to generate the pilots for this UAV force the Air Force plans to create separate pilot pipelines for its manned and unmanned aircraft. Colonel Curt Sheldon, assistant to the director of air operations for unmanned aircraft issues, has said, "I don't know that you could ever get [a UAV] to everybody who wants one. . . . I believe it is virtually insatiable. We are pedaling fast, we are working hard to meet that need."
Sheldon said that the Air Force is planning to shift about 100 manned-aircraft pilots directly from pilot training into flying the drones. They will mostly pilot MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, multi-purpose UAVs. These aircraft operate over the battlefields controlled by pilots sitting at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
Until now Air Force officers piloting UAVs have had to complete at least one tour of flight duty -- usually in fighters-- before moving to the drone jobs. The urgent push for more UAV pilots has been spurred by demands from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the services must give more priority to meeting combat commandersí needs. He has criticized the Air Force's failure to move more quickly to meet those needs.
"The pipeline that produces manned operators is full," said Sheldon. He indicated that pilots selected for UAV operations
The test program for non-pilots is aimed at Air Force captains who have four to six years of experience, but no flight training. Their schooling would take up to nine months, and they would not have to meet the more stringent standards that jet pilots must. For example, unmanned pilots will not have to meet certain height or vision requirements, and also would not be eliminated due to physical conditions that might prevent them from flying high-performance aircraft.
Under the new program the drone pilots would go to Pueblo, Colorado, for about six weeks of introductory flight training. They will Sheldon said they would learn to fly a light Mitsubishi propeller plane. They would also train on flight simulators, and then go through the unmanned aircraft training.
Addressing the need for extensive training for UAV operators, Sheldon said, "It's not particularly difficult to fly a [UAV] from point A to point B," said Sheldon. "It is challenging to fly it in a combat environment, coordinating with a guy on the ground who wants you to hit a target over here that's got [friendly] folks only 50 meters from it."
This concept of UAV operations has led the Air Force to seek operational control if not ownership of all UAVs that fly at medium altitudes -- above a couple of hundred feet -- where they could come in conflict with manned aircraft mission, enter landing patterns near airfields, be subject to surface-to-air weapons, etc. To date the Department of Defense leadership has opposed vesting such control in a single service.