Flying Predators bad for pilot’s health (part 2)

A couple of people have offered some suggestions for solving the surprising problem — disclosed on this blog earlier this week — that Predator flight crews are the most fatigued “aviators” in the US Air Force.

RTLM writes:

The USAF might ought to follow the Army model in their approach to UAV crews: They allow senior enlisted and Warrant Officers to pilot their UAV’s instead of assigning only trained USAF pilots (Officers) to fly the platforms. This is demonstrated by the Army’s push for 45 MQ-1C Warrior squadrons.

This suggestion could make a lot of sense. The published navy study I cited concluded that the primary culprit for Predator pilot fatigue is lack of manpower. But the air force is adamant that only commissioned officers can “fly” an aircraft in the same airspace as other manned planes, even if remotely. I’m not agreeing with this position, just pointing out why the air force will never accept this.

Another suggestion comes from Juan. He writes:

Maybe the USAF should buy the Raytheon Universal Control System.

Ah, yes. This is how the air force likes to solve manpower problems: buy new technology!


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17 Responses to Flying Predators bad for pilot’s health (part 2)

  1. Puppethead 18 April, 2008 at 7:07 am #

    Why do they have to run all ops from the one base? What about 3 bases roughly equally spaced around the world – perhaps reciprocal deals with Australia (RAAF Edinburgh? – for when Australia finally picks a large UAV) and the UK (seems to me that RAF Waddington might make sense)? All 3 countries could each use all 3 bases, and 3 8-hour shifts per day can be run during local business hours.

  2. Dr. James C. Miller 18 April, 2008 at 12:25 pm #

    The lack of sufficient personnel, specifically pilots, to staff a 24/7 shiftwork system has been known to be a problem for more than 3 years. I identified the problem in a November 2004 report that I wrote for the 15th RS after a shiftwork consult visit there when I worked for AFRL. My former colleague, Dr. Tvaryanas, has been following up on the problem. The basis of my recommendations was, “Balancing the scheduling principles [Miller, 2006] and the realities of operations at the 15th RS, we recommend the use of the DDNN – – – – plan with three caveats. These caveats are aimed at balancing the prevention of chronic fatigue with the need to accomplish additional duties.” I don’t believe that the plan, as described in the report, has been tried yet in the Predator community. The plan had internal flexibilities that should improve morale, operational reliability and quality of family life. Unfortunately, until the AF provides enough pilots to meet the demands of any 4-shift system, the problem will never go away no matter what schedule is tried.

  3. John S. 18 April, 2008 at 3:20 pm #

    The problem is the Air Force insisting on using rated officers as UAV operators.

    The Army lets NCOs and Warrant Officers fly helicopters, and is extending this to their own UAV fleet. The USAF doesn’t even have a Warrant Officer program.

    If the Air Force would let senior NCOs or at least allow non-rated officers to fly UAVs, they would have more than enough personnel to staff the UAV shifts.

    If I were a rated officer, it would be the worst thing in the world to be assigned Predator duty instead of ‘real flying.’ If I were a non-rated officer, I’d jump at the chance to get out of a paper-pushing assignment for the chance to pilot a UAV over Iraq or Afghanistan.

  4. David D. 19 April, 2008 at 4:03 am #

    While in airspace over Iraq and Afghanistan enlisted can pilot UAS, in the US the FAA requires certified pilots…perhaps the Army is leading the way with enlisted operators, but it may be that they are just being expediant and will have significant certification and training issues in the future.

  5. Charles Spiegelman 19 April, 2008 at 4:00 pm #

    The best way to solve this problem is let the actual flying take place where the action is, set up a center in Kuwait, or Iraq itself rather than in the states it makes more sense. Also, let both AF and Army, Navy and Marine personnel be trained to operate the UAVs, in particulare Enlisted/Warrent officers or junior officers. The problem is not with the lack of experience the problem is a lack of high level operations trust, there should be one overall head for UAVs, and that should be a joint service operation under the JCS. Lets get on the ball and stop playing around UAVS are going to be the future wether you like it or not.

  6. T. Anderson 21 April, 2008 at 10:33 am #

    I have found that In today’s world when the skill of driving an UAV is equivalent to myself driving a Sopwith Camel in my “Red Baron” computer game, the thought of a Multimillion dollar training cost pilot officer driving a computer for a recon drone is roughly equivalent to stupid.

    I believe, though I am not sure, that there is an “observer” who actually looks at the TV for tactical purposes, using the WWI analogy again, like the observor in an RE-8. In that case the pilot was usually a NCO and the observor was the officer (but not a pilot). So the question is, again, Air Force, why waste the talents of a “real” pilot to fly a TV.

    Flying needs practice and training and brains, not a college degree (A certain Charles Yeager comes to mind). Flying a Helicopter, as in the Army takes tremendous skill (look at Iraq – where flying is flying at 50m and 250kph, at night), which is accomplished by thousands of pilots with a High School Diploma. The pool of computer game flyers fresh out of high school, who would leap at the chance to put their skills to the test in the “real world” (especially if there was a free college GI bill reward) is very large and easily tapped.

    Please USAF, put the caste system aside, protect the health of your pilots (let them do actual flying) and open up the UAV jobs to NCO’s and Warrents(you will have to turn them away).

    Or give your Predators to the Army, it would cost less.

    T. Anderson
    Engineer, MBA, Teacher, “Sopwith Ace”

  7. Stephen Trimble 21 April, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    I don’t disagree with the suggestion that the USAF should open up Predator ops to non-commissioned and/or warrant officers.

    But there are a few issues.

    In combat ops, the Predator pilots will be flying in airspace amidst other manned platforms.

    Does it make sense that the USAF wants everyone in that airspace to share roughly the same training and educational experience?

    Even if we agree that a 15-year-old computer whiz can out-fly a college-educated USAF Predator pilot, is it really practical to put two tiers of pilots in the sky in the same place at the same time?

    Just asking!

  8. Allyn M Aldrich 3 June, 2008 at 7:54 pm #

    In truth, our industry is fully capable of providing collision avoidance systems that would let even the most inexperianced operator to safely fly a UAV after a few days experiance. Our so called pilots are really just operators whether sitting in a cockpit or at a remoe ground station. At the speed of a modern fighter, or bomber an operator must rely on the electronics to stay out of trouble.

    The real reason for only having rated pilots operate UAVs is that you don’t promote operators and they don’t have the prestige of a ‘rated pilot’.

  9. Paul Revere 24 June, 2008 at 4:34 pm #

    Solution: Get rid of the pilots! UAVs are supposed to be able to fly themselves, and they should, at least for 90% of the time using today’s technologies. The “pilot” should be more of a mission manager, controling the UAV with mouse clicks if necessary. But the UAV should be doing all of the “stick and rudder”, and with auto-land coming to Predator eventually, that will be SOP.

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