The Future of Military Aviation: Non-Pilot Pilots

Two MQ-1 Predator aircraft in the hangar at Creech AFB, Nevada: March 2009

When I visited Creech Air Force Base, at Indian Springs, Nevada, six months ago, the first class of non-pilot UAV operators was still being trained. That class has now graduated, and the USAF's groundbreaking experiment with reinventing the concept of the military aviator begins in earnest.

The Royal Air Force, who also operate UAVs from Creech, still prefers to have all its aircraft flown by active aviators. This stance, while seeming reasonable, logical and safety-minded, is also problematic. 

UAVs have obvious advantages of cost, speed of build/ease of deployment, and they remove the pilot from harm's way. They can also stay airborne much longer, with crews changing shift while the aircraft is in the air. This means they eat up man hours: a 24-hour Reaper flight will require a minimum of six pilots and six sensor operators, and maintaining a 24-hour, seven-day service will require at least four times that many crew. If they all have to be qualified and active airmen, that's quickly becoming a drain on front-line activities during what is, lest we forget, a very heated and intense war. 

There are other disadvantages, too, for the airmen assigned to UAV duties. The RAF's Reapers were bought under an Urgent Operational Requirement, and it is not clear whether any more of these aircraft will enter RAF service. While the usefulness of UAVs in general, and Reaper in particular, is clear in the Afghan context, there is as yet no long-term plan for integrating UAVs into the RAF's structure, and no means of being certain whether signing up for the Creech gig is a good or bad career move. While all the members of 39 Squadron, who fly the RAF's five MQ-9 Reapers from Creech, volunteered for their three-year tour of duty, the hours they spend piloting the aircraft are not recognised as flying hours by the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK: this will make getting work as an airline pilot after leaving the RAF - a common post-service career choice - a rather trickier step to take than it may otherwise be.

Some of the 39 Squadron pilots and sensor operators I spoke to (for a piece that ran in the May edition of Defense Technology International) felt that there was a good case for involving pilots who had been grounded by injury - someone who was no longer able to fly a fast jet because they'd lost a leg in a crash could still do a fine job in a UAV cockpit, which might accommodate a wheelchair. But there was widespread scepticism about training people to fly who'd never flown a military aircraft before. "It's not a high-performance aircraft, you won't have to do dogfights, but it's a real-sized aeroplane flying in real air space," argued Squadron Leader Steve Smith, who flew Tornados before transferring to Creech. "Drafting the cook in to fly it would, I think, be a disaster."

Well, there aren't any cooks on that first list of US non-pilot pilots, who look very much like the kind of "air-minded, operationally focused people" USAF's Colonel John Montgomery, the vice-commander of 432nd Wing at Creech, promised in March that this program would deliver. And the new aviators are well on-message when it comes to the video game question - the mereset whiff of which has the seasoned UAV community spitting feathers. With unmanned air combat operations only set to increase in already heavy manpower demands, the performance of these ten new pilots and their sensor operators will be keenly and widely analysed - as if their job wasn't difficult enough already.


Click here to add your comment.

Comments will be subject to approval and should not be defamatory, obscene, racist, in breach of copyright, or contrary to law. Neither Angus Batey nor the site host is reponsible for any views expressed here.





photo gallery


mailing list