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French Air Force introduces new UAV pilot training scheme

The French Air Force is ramping up the recruitment and training of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crews to cope with the service’s expanding air vehicle inventory.

While the 1/33 Belfort UAV squadron currently flies five GA-ASI MQ-9 Reaper medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs using 20 qualified crews (with each crew consisting of a pilot, sensor operator, tactical co-ordinator and image analyst), the plan is to have 24 MALE UAVs operational by 2030, generating a requirement for 80 to 100 crews.

The greatest urgency is to train the pilots to cope with this expansion, so the air force is introducing a new course into its flying schools alongside those already existing for fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters.

The first phase of training will fall under the responsibility of the Centre d’excellence drone (CED) in Salon de Provence, southern France. The CED, which until now was more oriented towards research, thus sees its mission considerably evolve. During this phase the students will fly Cirrus light aircraft and receive some specific training, especially in relation to instrument flight rules (IFR).

The second phase will then take the student pilots to the air force flying school in Cognac, where they will improve their piloting skills on the Grob 120 basic trainer. They will then move on to the UAV Operational Conversion Squadron (Escadron de Transformation Opérationnelle Drone – ETOD) and the 1/33 Belfort to acquire the particular tactical know-how required to operate the Reapers.

The air force plans to have two thirds of its UAV pilots following this scheme, with the last third being recruited among already-qualified pilots within the air force.

France maintains three MQ-9 Reapers in Niamey, Niger. The UAVs are in high demand in Africa's Sahel region, where they fulfill a wide range of ISR missions. The introduction of an armament onto these platforms by the end of the year in the form of the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb will surely increase their tempo of operation. (Frederic Lert)

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