Correction: This story has been updated to accurately identify that CAE has a third of the instructors at Holloman Air Force Base.
WASHINGTON — The need for training pilots on unmanned platforms is on a clear upswing, right along with the number of missions that demand support from remotely piloted aircraft. Robert Kiebler, director of international business development at CAE, has witnessed the incredible uptick in demand along with the U.S. Air Force response, both as former commander of the 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base and in his current role with the contractor supporting MQ-1 and MQ-9 training.
There's been an astounding increase in requirements for remotely piloted aircraft. Did you observe that during your time in the Air Force?
When we talk capability, very often we use the term CAP [combat air patrols]. In unmanned, it equates to one 24/7 orbit. [Each CAP, also known as an orbit, consists of four aircraft.] A little over 15 years ago when 9/11 kicked off, and [operations in] Afghanistan and Iraq began, we only had a couple of orbits available to the Air Force flying actively. In 15 years, we have gone from that small capability to having between 60-65 full-time orbits fielded by military personnel. Today, the RPA capability [encompasses] the largest group of pilots in the entire Air Force. Larger than any other weapon system — C-17, A-10, any. When I took over the squadron, we had 60 people and three CAPs. In nine months, we grew to 330 people and nine CAPs. My last year at Holloman we trained more MQ-1 and MQ-9 pilots than all of the fighter and bomber communities combined in one year.
How does that translate into personnel requirements?
When you talk about the manpower required — one 24/7 orbit equates to 170 people. As you increase from the same location, you have economies of scale. But going to that number, there are between 10 and 15 pilots, corresponding sensor operators, intelligence specialists, imagery analysts. You have maintenance personnel. As we increase the numbers of CAPs so quickly, there has been a corresponding requirement to increase the number of people in the Air Force to meet this demand.
Those numbers increased so significantly and quickly, the Air Force struggled to keep up with the training requirements involved with growing a flying enterprise and organization from almost nothing to how big we are right now.
I imagine that takes a toll on the pilots.
You had people flying combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without ever taking a break. We haven’t been able to build the fly enterprise in a stable way, [comparable to] any other platform out there. For F-35, there’s a pretty good idea how that community will grow, how we’ll train, how we’ll field aircraft and updates, and equipment because it’s a program of record in place and being done in a more systematic way. The RPA enterprise has grown out of necessity; as the conflict has continued in the Middle East — as those have grown, there has been an increasing need for armed [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] ISR. The ground commanders continue to ask for more because it’s been successful.
To train the crews, to get them into those operational units and flying command at missions as soon as possible, they’ve had to grow the training capability as quickly and extensively as the rest of the enterprise.
One of the challenges with this particular community is you’re flying combat missions from the U.S. The first half of my career was flying A-10s. When I graduated from my training unit, I graduated and went to my first operational assignment and I was integrated in as a wingman. I did a lot of local training to get integrated with my squadron and flew in exercises like Red Flag before I deployed into operational locations. That was in the mid-'90s. I deployed in Kuwait but not until six to seven months after [operational mission] training.
When RPA crews graduate, they go right to an operational location. And they are given about a month of mission training. But that training is done on actual combat missions. There is no excess training capacity or capability in those operational units. All our hardware, ground control stations and aircraft are dedicated to operational missions. You might have a brand-new second lieutenant who finishes at Holloman as an MQ-9 pilot. They show up to Creech [Air Force Base], are given a month or six weeks' training with an instructor looking over their shoulder in an operational mission, then they’re on their own. They’re employing weapons and directing other aircraft in how they employ weapons. They’re given a lot of responsibility early in their career.
At Holloman, you need the very best training possible. You can’t compromise and expect the operational squadron will make up for it.
How have the training capabilities evolved?
Back up until 2009, the Air Force sent previously qualified manned pilots from their flying platforms to RPAs for an assignment or two. Then they sent them back. ... As you grow the enterprise so quickly to be such a big part of the Air Force flying community — you can’t do that anymore. It can’t be a temporary assignment. The Air Force did a lot of studies, and rather than taking everyone through the manned track, they created a separate RPA training pipeline. Prior to Holloman, they go through six months of training. Actually fly a small prop airplane to get airmanship, to learn aviation and what it feels like. They do fly an airplane and make it up to an equivalent of a private pilot license. Then they get an instrument qualification on a T-6 simulator. It’s essentially their instrument qualification, so in [the] eyes of the [Federal Aviation Administration]
they can fly RPAs in the national airspace; equivalent qualifications as other manned aircraft. From there they go through a four- to five-[weekslong] RPA fundamentals course, where they learn basics to prepare for Holloman and learning specific aircraft. There are five months where they learn that — qualify on the MQ-9 before going to operational unit.
What is the role of CAE as a contractor?
CAE has a third of the instructors at Holloman, [and that has been growing]. The operational units were struggling to meet requirements for the operational missions being flown, and they had allowed Holloman to be short on [instructors for] pilots and sensor operators to man operational squadrons. When I took over at Holloman, we were 50-60 percent manned on instructors. The Air Force recognized that over the long term this was not sustainable. You needed to get your training pipeline healthy to get operational capability healthy. In six to eight months, we almost doubled the number [getting training] at Holloman. This required significant training.
That same year, we increased [the] number of graduates at Holloman from 280 pilots in fiscal 2015 to almost 450 in 2016. CAE instructors grew by a corresponding amount. They teach academics. They teach on simulators. But they also teach on live-fly, actual aircraft. There are no other places in the Air Force where contractors actually fly airplanes in instructional capacity like at Holloman.
Walk me through the training that a pilot would go through.
First you have academics; heavy instruction on aircraft systems — the tactical flying environment, airspace de-confliction, coordination. As you fly the airplane, and you get into the live-fly portion. Throughout the program there is a mix of simulator and live fly. Normally you fly first missions in a simulator — learning how to employ weapons, learning the mechanics, dealing with coordinating agencies. Students learn in a very forgiving environment. Then they move onto the live fly, where it’s more complex. Then you go to a simulator with a new mission. Graduate-level missions toward the end, just before you graduate, are complex. It could involve former military who are driving on the ground in pickup trucks simulating bad guys, civilians and military personnel to get people on the ground to look and react. You’ll also have other airplanes flying, different things going on that really put pressure on the student and add a lot of complexity to make it as close to a real-world mission as possible.
The course is about 26 percent academic, 38 percent simulator and 36 percent live fly.
Is there adequate training with manned aircraft?
We try very hard. [For example], we try to integrate F-16s in with RPA operations we do. The problem we run into is the F-16 [at Holloman] is 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] that RPA crew how to integrate with other platforms before they’re actually flying operational missions. They’re learning now how to do that as a new pilot in a combat environment. That’s not optimal.
One of the things CAE ... is developing [is] a high-fidelity MQ-9 simulator that can be networked with other platform simulators, so we can do [multiplatform training] virtually. We’re in [the] process of completing a Predator Mission Trainer for the Italian Air Force, where the MQ-9 simulator will be able to link with other operational simulators to be able to have a virtual flag exercise. So if we can’t find the time or hardware to do it in a live-fly environment, then maybe we can do it virtually. That’s something we’ve been discussing with the Air Force — how do we develop this virtually capability to provide crews the same complex mission training.
Where does that program with the Italian Air Force stand?
In a month or two the Italian Air Force will head out to [our plant in] Montreal, [Canada], for the acceptance phase. It’s a zero-flight-time simulator. They wanted to be able to do 100 percent training in the simulator. So in conjunction with General Atomics, CAE has built a ground control station converted into a simulator, where they can do 100 percent training virtually on the MQ-1 and MQ-9, so they don’t have to use actual operational assets or capabilities.
Are there any drawbacks to relying entirely on simulators?
It was built and designed so they could do up to 100 percent. But in likelihood they won’t. That would be rare. Even if [pilots are] seeing the same things, there will always be a difference. You never can throw in all of the complexity and people moving around on the ground in [a] virtual world. But we see the capability to do 80 to 90 percent of training in a [simulated] environment, [with] complex, [live-fly] training like Red Flag [used] maybe 10 to 20 percent. That would be a good mix.