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Fri, Oct 24, 2008

USAF Launches Two New Programs To Attract UAV Pilots

Specialized Program Wants Candidates With No Military Flight Experience

The urgent need for more personnel capable of operating unmanned aerial vehicles has led the US Air Force to launch two new training programs... including one bound to raise eyebrows in the fighter pilot community.

The Associated Press reports an experimental program aims to train as many as 1,100 new pilots to operate UAVs over Iraq and Afghanistan. To accommodate so many trainees, those personnel will be trained only in the basics of operating small aircraft; they won't need to meet the far more rigorous requirements that pilots of manned fighter aircraft must go through.

For example, UAV pilots would not need to meet height or vision requirements... nor would they be necessarily disqualified from service for physical conditions that would inhibit them from operating high-performance aircraft, such as the inability to fly at high altitudes.

Col. Curt Sheldon, assistant to the director of air operations for UAS issues, says Air Force officials are seeking up to 20 captains with four to six years of experience to volunteer for the unmanned aircraft systems beta test program. Qualified candidates may have civilian flight experience, but no military pilot training.

After nine months of UAV-specific training, graduates of the program would earn their "wings," so to speak... though only on UAVs.

To date, the US Air Force has only recruited experienced pilots of manned fighter aircraft -- those with at least one tour of duty -- to fly UAVs... a process that has slowed implementation of UAV deployment. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has criticized the USAF for its more deliberate pace.

Sheldon admits more pilots are needed to fill out the Air Force's goal of implementing 50 UAV combat patrols, 24 hours a day, by September 2011. Thirty such patrols now operate, largely over Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I don't know that you could ever get (a drone) to everybody who wants one," Sheldon said. "I believe it is virtually insatiable. We are pedaling fast, we are working hard to meet that need."

As ANN reported last month, the experimental program will run concurrently with the Air Force's efforts to ramp up its efforts to retrain fighter pilots to operate unmanned aerial vehicles. Eventually, the Air Force hopes to send as many as 100 experienced pilots through the drone program per year, through 2011.

"The pipeline that produces manned operators is full," Sheldon added. "We're pushing them through there as fast as we can."

Sheldon downplays the notion that UAV-only pilots would be less-qualified than their brethren coming out of the fighter corps. He notes it isn't particularly difficult to fly an F-16 from one spot to another; the finesse comes in learning how to deploy weapons on-target.

"It's not particularly difficult to fly a (drone) from point A to point B," said Sheldon. "It is challenging to fly it in a combat environment, coordinating with a guy on the ground who wants you to hit a target over here that's got (friendly) folks only 50 meters from it."



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