The biggest challenge in preparing pilots to fly remote-piloted aircraft is not one of technological skills and expertise. It's one of mental and environmental preparedness, as pilots go from a training environment to immediately flying combat missions solo, often with limited live flying with manned aircraft.
Certainly, the battle against the Islamic State created an unusually perfect storm for the Air Force: a rapid increase in demand for aerial drones, increased armament requirements and – with those things – a major shortfall in pilots and sensor operators trained to fly them. The Air Force launched a significant effort to increase the number of qualified pilot in 2015.
About two years ago, "when I first got here in the squadron, manning [to meet requirements] was our biggest challenge," at about 50-60 percent for pilots, and 70-80 percent for sensor operators, said Lt. Col. Geoff, commander of the 6th Attack Squadron at Holloman. The goal of the expansion at Holloman Air Force Base's RPA training squadrons was to increase the rate of student production from 603 pilots and sensor-operator students in fiscal year 2015 to more than 800 students in fiscal 2016. Beyond pilots, that required more qualified instructors.
"It was a difficult task because combat units had to take their experienced aviators and send them to us," where they'd undergo a four to six month training to become qualified instructors, Lt. Col. Geoff added. "We're getting to the point now where we're reaching healthy qualification numbers ... where we can do better at meeting demand in RPA pilots."
Training is accomplished through a mix of academics, simulation and live flying. Pilots learn in a classroom aircraft systems and airspace deconfliction and coordination. In simulators, they experience flying at different altitudes and emergency procedures, responding to different pre-programmed missions, and employing weapons. Once students begin live flying, training typically alternates between simulators and actual aircraft. Toward the end of training, missions can grow more complex: airplanes flying in the same airspace; former military driving on the ground in pickup trucks simulating bad guys, civilians, and military personnel, said Robert Kiebler, director of international business developmnet at CAE, which supports pilot and sensor operator training at Holloman.
Training RPA pilots on how to integrate with manned aircraft is difficult, another challenge associated with rapid increase in requirements without the available platforms and personnel.
"You have F-16s on Holloman, [and] we try to integrate F-16s in with RPA operations," said Kiebler, who is the former commander of the 49th Wing. "The problem we run into is [at Holloman] it’s the F-16 training unit. So they have a specific syllabus. There are no extra airplanes to fly in [exercises]. It’s a real problem – training the RPA crew how to integrate with other platforms before they’re actually flying operation missions. They’re learning now how to do that as a new pilot in a combat environment. That’s not optimal."
CAE is looking into the possibility of developing a high fidelity MQ-9 simulator that can be networked with other platform simulators. The company is in the process of completing a pilot for Italian Air Force, linking operational simulators to be able to have a virtual flag exercise.
"If we can’t find the time or hardware to do it in a live fly environment, then maybe we can do it virtually," Kiebler said. "That’s something we’ve been discussing with the Air Force – how do we develop this virtual capability to provide crews the same complex training."
In the meantime, the Air Force is focused on providing adequate training through the means available to prepare RPA for combat operations, which begins immediately after the training is completed.
"Within a couple months they’re flying combat as a brand new pilot and sensor operator, supporting ground operations. ...They don’t have anyone telling them what to do," said Lt. Col. Geoff. Contrast that with manned platforms, he added, where training is followed by a period of time as a copilot and as a wingman.
"A lot of time it’s years before being an aircraft commander" for manned platforms, Lt. Col. Geoff added. "The biggest challenge [for unmanned] is taking a brand new pilot or sensor operator, and teaching them these skill sets required to execute as a crew, and have that pilot in command mentality."
The training reflects that challenge. The beginning is designed to make pilots proficient at flying the aircraft, while the latter is geared toward executing a mission set. ‘Here is a situation and some tactics. Figure out which to apply and which is best to do in this particular situation.'
"One scenario to the next, the same decision might change," Lt. Col. Geoff said. "They need to use knowledge of weapons and tactics to get the right outcome."
The decision making changes a bit for pilots transitioning from the MQ-1 Predator to the MQ-9 Raptor as well. Both made by General Atomics, the systems are similar, and pilots fly from same cockpit with the same ground control. But the software is modestly different.
"We’re not losing necessarily their MQ-1 experience; that’s helping them be better with the MQ-9," Lt. Col. Geoff said. "It flies a little differently and carries a different payload. But the way we employ an MQ-1 and an MQ-9 is predominantly the same. We can do the same mission sets, we can just offer different effects to the battlefield."
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.