The USAF is looking to process and technology to increase production of  the RPA pilot. MS&T’s Chuck Weirauch reports.

With the newly emerging threats in the Pacific region and Northern Europe, as well as elsewhere, the Pentagon is reportedly planning to increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) missions by nearly 50 percent in the next several years. Along with this increased pressure on the UAS community, additional stress comes from a May 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that severely chastises both the US Army and Air Force for inadequate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) training, and the resultant shortages of qualified UAS instructors and pilots.


In response both services are revamping their UAS training programs and methodologies to address the shortage of UAS pilots. The impact of shortages is high. For example, the Air Force had had to reduce its desired number of daily UAS Combat Air Patrol (CAP) flights from 65 to 60 - not enough to meet demand - in order to reduce some of the stress on current UAS mission crews who are already overworked.

Improving the Pipeline

The Air Force has taken several steps to increase the number of UAS pilots - which the service has designated as Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) pilots - beginning with undergraduate RPA training for its MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk RPAs. This training is the beginning of a path that can lead to a full operational career, rather than a specialization, for those airmen choosing to become an RPA pilot.

On July 15, perhaps in part because of the negative GAO report, the Air force revealed a new RPA pilot pipeline improvement plan in response to what it termed "the critical shortage of remotely piloted aircraft pilots." The plan includes offering annual $15,000 salary bonuses beginning in 2016 for those who remain on this career path. The new program will also place some RPA pilots newly graduated from initial training in RPA squadrons.

The service also intends to invest more than $100 million to obtain more ground control stations, simulators and contract instructors, along with improved software tools, along with accelerating the development of RPA automatic takeoff and landing capabilities. Another element of the plan is to increase instructor pilot manning at the MQ-1B and MQ-9 Formal Training Unit at Holloman AFB, NM, from 61 to 100 percent sourced from the combat air patrol reduction and the Air National Guard. The funding depends on US Congressional approval.

MS&T made inquiries to determine just what simulators would be included in this allocation, as well as how many RPA contract instructors would be added. However, Air Force sources reported that it was just too early in the process for that information to be available. One service source did speculate that possibly this meant the procurement of additional Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS) simulators. These simulators are used for RPA pilot and sensor operator training at Holloman Air Force Base, NM, the service's formal RPA training center. Air Force RPA training is also conducted at Creech AFB, NV; March Air Reserve Base, CA; and Hancock Air National Guard Base, NY.

Another part of the Air Force plan is for 80 graduates from the Undergraduate Pilot Training program conducted at Pueblo, CO. to be assigned to RPA positions for one assignment tour to help alleviate the growing pressure on overtaxed RPA crews. The current plan is to only use the UPT pipeline for one year, while the RPA-unique training pipeline increases from approximately 190 to 300 graduates per year. The last time the Air Force placed a UPT graduate directly into the RPA career field without the additional RPA training they would normally receive was in 2011, according to the service announcement.

Current Training

All Air Force pilot candidates go through their Initial Flight Training (IFT) course on their way to becoming qualified manned aircraft pilots at Pueblo. To help address RPA training needs, the IFT was expanded and tailored to the RPA pilot training program with its own unique curriculum; manned aircraft pilot candidates complete the original IFT. The IFT and RPA curricula at Pueblo include 40 hours of manned aircraft flight time in a Diamond DA-20 airplane approximating that required to earning a private pilot certificate in the US.

Normally after initial training at Pueblo, RPA student pilots then are sent to Randolph Air Force Base, TX, where they begin instrument qualification, the second phase of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC)'s RPA pilot curriculum. Following this initial training, the RPA students then go to Holloman, where they undergo a four-month advanced training in Predator and Reaper platforms, beginning with training sessions in the PMATS. They then go to control stations at Holloman for actual RPA flight training. Predator and Reaper crews complete initial qualification, mission qualification, continuation and mission rehearsal training at Holloman, and then are assigned to operational RPA squadrons under the Air Combat Command (ACC).

Initial RPA Simulation

This instrument qualification training phase includes time in what the AETC Undergraduate RPA Program Manager (Note: The Air Force prohibits the use of RPA operators' last names in print), referred to as a “T-6-like" flight training device (FTD). On graduating from the instrument qualification course, RPA students then go on to their operational RPA squadrons under the ACC for formal training in RPA mission operations, and where they actually get to fly one of the three types of Air Force RPAs assigned to those units as a part of that training.

The AETC FTDs at Randolph were modified from existing T-6 simulators employed for manned aircraft student pilots and RPA undergraduates. The 588th Flying Training Squadron and SimiGon reconfigured the devices.

According to the Undergraduate RPA Program Manager at Randolph, the RPA version does not use real airplane parts, which keeps costs down considerably. There is also no control feedback so that students have to rely more on their visual stimuli than the vestibular feedbacks one would get in a full T-6 simulator, he said. These modified FTDs also are networked together so that a "virtual airspace” - complete with a simulated air traffic controller (ATC) - can be replicated to make the training environment more realistic and improve student communications skills, the Manager added.

More FTDs Key

In addition to the first ten modified RPA simulators, an additional six new FTDs will be added to those at the AETC RPA pilot instrument qualification program. The goal with the additional FTDs is to double the production of Undergraduate RPA Training (URT) graduates in 2016. Funding for the new FTDs will not come from the $100 million cited in the Air Force pipeline, but rather through the AETC budget.

"What we have found over the past five years is that these FTDs have worked out great," the Program Manager reported."The training has been outstanding, but the original FTD design could have been more robust. So the design of the six new FTDs will be more robust, with stronger buttons and switches to try and reduce maintenance costs down the road. Then we will go back and retrofit the original ten to the new standard. So we will be able to reduce our maintenance costs and be able to handle our higher student throughput. We're the future of the RPA enterprise in that students that we create here will be the ones that will eventually fill out that RPA pilot pipeline."

Simulation improvements?

MS&T interviewed Major Justin Noehl, the MQ1-MQ9 Operations Branch Deputy Chief for the ACC, seeking more clarification of the new Air Force RPA training improvement plan. He explained that while the Air Force's RPA plan calls for more simulators, that does not mean that the simulators employed at the RPA Formal Training Center at Holloman and some RPA squadrons necessarily have to be improved as well.

"PMATS is very capable as a training device, and we continue to use those," Noehl said. "I think that they are a part of that $100 million for the RPA training improvement plan. Since the RPA world is so technically advanced, we are always trying to make improvements. But the need right now for newer, better technologies, although it is there, isn't quite as important as increasing the training pipeline from AETC into the training units and ACC."

"I'm not saying that there isn't a need for upgrading our technology" Noehl continued. "We can always upgrade everything we are flying, even our aircraft. But considering the training and the needs that we need to fill right now, the fidelity of the sims are just fine, and we do use them more often than not to make sure that we get the training accomplished."

Sim vs. Flight Time

Noehl also explained that the amount of simulator time at the Formal Training Center will not be increased - as opposed to actual RPA flight time with the actual aircraft. The current syllabus calls for an even 50-50 split in training time between the two. In general, the Formal Training Center curriculum is made up of 40 to 45 RPA flight hours and an equal number of simulator hours, in addition to ground training and academics, which add another 50 or 60 hours.

“We try to maximize the actual flying time for undergraduates for the URT guys so that they can build their airmanship and their expertise when they go out to a dynamic situation on the combat line," Noehl explained. "The benefit of actually flying the aircraft is the dynamic situations and quick decisions that you have to make, whereas in the simulator, you can pause, discuss and review while you are learning. It is preferred to fly more, but the sims are just as good and the fidelity as it stands does translate fairly well to actually flying an aircraft."

As the number of URT graduates for the RPA pipeline expands and more established, the amount of simulator time to actual RPA flight time will be re-evaluated, Noehl said.

" So while we are still trying to normalize and be able to build an RPA force that is solely focused on RPAs, we are going to need additional UPT pilots. For us, it is pretty much the lack of manning of instructors rather than the need for more simulators in order to put students through the course."

More Instructors on the Way

Presumably part of the $100 million for the RPA training improvement program will cover the addition of more CAE RPA instructors. In September, the Air Force awarded CAE USA a contract modification to expand the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper RPA training program. The company said that the multi-million dollar contract modification was awarded as phase one of a multi-phase program that calls for CAE USA to significantly increase the number of training instructors it employs to support the USAF’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper training programs. The majority of the new instructors will be based at Holloman.

CAE USA is currently in the second year of a five-year contract to serve as prime contractor providing MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircrew training services and courseware development. Instructors from the company are also being provided at the other three RPA training sites.