The US Air Force (USAF) is still solidifying its training regimens for remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) operators as trainers are seeking a safe and effective programme that can reduce training accidents.
A USAF training officer noted during the annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference in Orlando, Florida, that in the past losing aircraft during training was less of an issue as the focus was on quickly preparing RPA pilots for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, however, the service is working reduce training accident rates in order to save money and preserve aircraft.
Due to the high number of accidents, the service changed its RPA training syllabus, increased supervision, and targeted teaching instructing for specific areas of weakness, according to Major Jack Antedomenico, instructor in 11th Reconnaissance Squadron that teaches launch and recovery operations for MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper RPAs.
RPA pilots represent a nascent carrier field for the air force. In 2008 the USAF chief of staff directed new pilot training for RPAs and development of the new career field, and by 2009 the first 'beta test' graduates entered mission ready training in operational squadrons at Creech and Cannon air force bases.
Maj Antedomenico explained that the latest RPA training syllabus includes initial flight screening, instrument qualification, RPA fundamentals, and specific flight training on a particular aircraft.
Two months of initial flight screening comprises flying 40 hours in a Diamond DA-20 trainer and this has about a 25% washout rate as many trainees have no previous flying experience, he said.
A 2.5-month instrument qualification session follows during which trainees fly a Beechcraft T-6 Texan II simulator. They then spend one month in an RPA fundamentals course to "bridge the gap between being a pilot and getting an introduction to the tactics, techniques, and procedures that we're using down range", Maj Antedomenico added. Prospective RPA pilots then spend three months at a readiness training unit to learn to fly actual unmanned aircraft.
Maj Antedomenico said the MQ-9 syllabus includes 15.5 hours of academic time, nine simulator sessions totalling 22.5 hours, and seven flights totalling 14 hours. During a 'check ride' trainees must demonstrate that they can handle a minimum of two emergencies per phase of flight - such as the loss of communications link on ground and in the air, loss of an engine in the air, ground fires, and more.
He said that for the MQ-9 and MQ-1 "probably more than half of the [Undergraduate RPA Training] URT guys are going to fail a ride". These personnel have the least manned flight experience prior to entering training.
About 20% of the trainees with 200 hours of manned flying and almost 8% of prior pilots will fail a ride occasionally, although Maj Antedomenico said this is not necessarily bad because it adds another two hours of supervised instruction and the trainee gains experience.
Still, accidents officials are working on a variety of ways to reduce costly training accidents.
The ground control station for the Predator and Reaper do not have dual controls that an instructor can take over in an emergency, so instead they must closely watch and communicate effectively to RPA trainees if something goes wrong.
Maj Antedomenico said that communication and a close eye are key to preventing crashes, but also suggested more manned flight experience was essential.
"I think it's going to be absolutely necessary to have manned flight experience" and it needs to be "at a private pilot's level at a minimum", he said.
Currently URT personnel receive about one-third the academic hours as fighter or bomber pilots, and URT trainees get 40 hours of manned flight time compared with nearly 200 for the fighter/bombers or tanker/transport tracks.