Leadership: Who Are The Real Pilots


January 17, 2013: In the U.S. the politicians (Congress) are pressuring the U.S. Air Force to give officers who operate UAVs as many promotions as those who fly manned aircraft. Until recently, only pilots of manned aircraft could, for a few years at a time, serve as UAV operators. But this limited the number of UAV operators the air force could train and saw experienced ones leaving after three years. So now the air force allows non-pilot officers to serve as UAV operators. At the same time the air force is under a lot of pressure (from better civilian job offers for pilots) to give out as many promotions as it can to its pilots of manned aircraft. Congress limits the number of officers of each rank the air force can have at any one time. The organization chart allows for more jobs for higher ranking officers than Congress allows, which means there is always competition for promotion, even though you may be in a job that calls for someone of higher rank. The UAV operators believe they are being shortchanged and have now got Congress on their side. While the UAV operators don’t actually go into the air, they, arguably, suffer more stress because they spend more time in “contact” (even if remotely) with the enemy. Moreover, flying combat aircraft has become so safe that pilots are in more danger driving to and from the airbase than they are once aloft in a warplane. The UAV operators consider their ground based work more useful than the pilots in the air and want a fair share of the promotions. The air force leadership is dominated by pilots (of manned aircraft) so there is some friction over this issue.

Meanwhile there is an ongoing debate over whether or not you even need officers to operate UAVs. The army, for example, uses NCOs and warrant officers for this job and does just fine. It was only last year that the U.S. Navy decided that officers, or only NCOs with flying experience, would operate UAVs, at least those weighing more than 25 kg (55 pounds). That means only one of the current navy UAVs can be operated by enlisted sailors. This is the ScanEagle, which weighs 18 kg (40 pounds). ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight and fly as high as 5,200 meters (16,000 feet). The UAV can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the controller.

Currently, only the army allows enlisted troops to handle larger UAVs. Three years ago the head of the U.S. Air Force publicly rejected growing calls from air force commanders that NCOs be used as UAV operators. This is an old dispute that goes back over 70 years. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force struggles to train a few hundred UAV operators a year, while the U.S. Army has no trouble training over 2,000 a year. Most of the army operators use the small (five pound) Raven UAV, which provides platoons, companies, and vehicle convoys with aerial reconnaissance. Interestingly, UAV operators each spend about 1,200 hours a year controlling UAVs in the air, versus 450 hours for army helicopter pilots and even less for air force pilots in the combat zone. Note that the Raven is a more difficult UAV to “fly” because it is more vulnerable to winds. Skilled Raven operators are appreciated by ground unit commanders.

Most army UAV operators are enlisted troops, while all air force ones are officers. The Raven training only lasts 80 hours, but this tiny UAV was designed for ease of use and operators are expected to acquire most of their skills with OJT (On the Job Training). It takes about five times longer to train operators for larger UAVs like Shadow and Predator. These cost about a hundred times more than a Raven and operators are allowed far fewer mistakes. The air force points out that the largest UAVs, like the Global Hawk, can cross oceans and require a high degree of training and skill. But it's much more dangerous to fly a Raven within rifle range of enemy troops and keep the little bird alive long enough to get the video feed needed to win the battle. Many of these army Raven operators are very, very good, mainly because they have hundreds of hours experience operating their UAVs while under fire. Few air force UAV drivers can claim this kind of experience.

Actually, there's not much at stake in this dispute, other than possibly settling the decades old controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) and navy both had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants" or "flying chiefs" in the navy) selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots but professional pilots of fighters, bombers, and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground.

As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (2.4 million troops and 80,000 aircraft at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander General Hap Arnold insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on pilots being officers and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants" by making most pilots "Warrant Officers" (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their time on their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties). Many air force pilots envy the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do, fly a helicopter or aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the air force and go work for an airline. But often they stay in the air force reserve and fly warplanes on weekends and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.

But now the air force has this growing force of UAVs, which are piloted from the ground. Increasingly, as the flight control software improves, the pilots do less piloting and more "controlling" (sending a few orders to the airborne UAV and letting the software take care of the details). Initially, the fighter and transport pilots ordered to perform UAV duty were not happy about it. In addition to losing flight pay, they were not flying. While guiding a Predator or Global Hawk from the ground could have its exiting moments, there was no hiding the fact that you were sitting on the ground staring at a computer screen most of time. Worse yet, you couldn't "feel" the aircraft in flight. Pilots know well that this aspect of flying is one of the most enjoyable, exciting, and useful aspects of their job. Being a UAV jockey had none of the fun, challenge, or extra pay of real flying. The air force finally decided to give the UAV pilots flight pay and promise them they could go back to "real aircraft" after two or three years of UAV work.

A fifteen week training course is used to train air force pilots to operate UAVs. Since qualified pilots are taking this course the washout rate is only two percent. Some pilots are even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force, until quite recently, considered UAV controller work a "temporary assignment." Only recently did UAVs become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description.

You save a lot of money by using NCOs as UAV controllers. Sergeants and Petty Officers are paid less and they don't get flight pay. No one has been able to demonstrate any better performance on the part of the air force pilots who operate UAVs. In the long run, the enlisted UAV "pilots" will probably be superior because they are making a career of this sort of thing.

Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator, are operated by a team. Typically a Predator is attended to by a pilot and two sensor operators (NCOs), who monitor what the cameras and other sensors are picking up. Because a Predator is often in the air for 15-20 hours at a time, and is often flying over an active battlefield and is looking very hard for specific stuff, the "crew" has to be changed every 4-6 hours to avoid fatigue. Moreover, each Predator unit might have several UAVs in the air at once. The new software means that each shift needs only one pilot, for up to four airborne Predators, and up to eight sensor operators. The pilots also operate the weapons, if any of the Predators are carrying missiles. But most of the time Predators fly missions without using missiles.

The core of all this is the fact that software is replacing a lot of pilot functions and, eventually, taking the place of human pilots. Many larger UAVs already have the ability to take off, follow a predetermined course, carry out a mission, and then land, all by itself (or "autonomously"). One can make a case for officers being in charge here but as commanders of the autonomous UAVs, not their operators.



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