Morale: Wings Of Desire


March 16, 2010: Last year, the U.S. Air Force began issuing special "wings" for operators of UAVs. While the air force now trains non-pilots to operate UAVs, this is not the first time that the air force issued "wings" badges to non-pilots. Navigators (recently phased out), Air Battle Managers (working aboard AWACS), Observer (now only used by some astronauts), Flight Surgeon (air force doctors) and Combat Systems Officer (the back seater in some fighter bombers) all receive "wings" to wear on their uniforms. Unless you look close, you can't tell which of the wings indicate an actual pilot. Naturally, pilots consider the pilot wings to be the only ones that really count. All wings are similar, except for the symbology on the badge that the two wings extend from.

It was only last year that, for the first time, the U.S. Air Force graduated a class of UAV operators who were not already military pilots. Actually, these officers were given flight training, but only of the most basic kind, and needed only 18 hours at the controls of an aircraft, before they went on to UAV operator school. Now, the air force has increased that to 35 hours, because it is believed that a UAV operator needs a pilots sense of what is going on, even while operating an aircraft remotely from the ground. However, most UAV operator training is done using simulators, which is easier to do with UAVs (because the operators normally operate their aircraft via two or more flat screen computer displays.) These simulators are getting better and better, and don't require the expensive dome displays and mechanical actuators (to simulate the movement of the cockpit and physical orientation of the pilot).

The air force had long insisted that all UAV operators already be manned aircraft pilots, and allowed most of them to spend only three years operating UAVs before returning to manned aircraft. This has limited the number of UAV operators available, and forced the air force to create a larger UAV operator training program than they would have needed if all UAV pilots were career UAV operators. Some UAV operators, who were already military pilots, have now committed to stick with it for their entire careers, and the air force is moving towards making it that way for all UAV operators.

Then there's another factor at play; UAVs have become where the action is. There are more UAVs in action over Iraq and Afghanistan, than all other air force combat aircraft. So, if you want to see some action, you want to be a UAV driver. This has not been enough to lure many fighter pilots away from their "fast movers." But the fighter pilots forced to do a three year tour with UAVs don't regret it. While the duty is often tedious (UAV operators do eight hour shifts), at least you are focused on the ground, where the enemy, and the action, is. Instead of a cockpit, UAV operators sit in front of multiple flat panel displays (showing system status, maps, chat room discussions with troops and other operators, and video from the cameras), and interact via a joystick, rudder control and a keyboard. While UAV operators sometimes (in about three percent of missions) fire Hellfire missiles, most of their work is more like a detectives' stakeout, watching for suspicious activity, and passing on video, and observations, to the ground troops. Some air force pilots are attracted to UAV duty because they see this as the future.

Meanwhile, the army already uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage. The air force is under pressure (both from within, and outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be career UAV operators. But it will probably stay with officers or, as the army does with helicopter pilots, use warrant officers (officers who concentrate on their technical specialty, and not command duties).





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