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Drone pilots to come from similar platforms

Oct. 16, 2011 - 09:06AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 16, 2011 - 09:06AM  |  
Navy officials said when the service rolls out new unmanned aerial vehicles, aviators and others who have already worked with similar aircraft will be first in line to operate them.
Navy officials said when the service rolls out new unmanned aerial vehicles, aviators and others who have already worked with similar aircraft will be first in line to operate them. (MC2 Alan Gragg / Navy)
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When the Navy rolls out new unmanned aerial vehicles, aviators and others who have already worked with similar aircraft will be first in line to operate the cutting-edge weapons, Navy officials said.

For example, pilots, naval flight officers and maintainers from the P-3 Orion community will operate and maintain the MQ-4C Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV, since both aircraft are designed primarily for maritime intelligence missions. The MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter will draw from the SH-60 Seahawk community, because the platforms are similar.

Training for unmanned systems will most likely begin after an aviator has completed his first or second tour. The Navy also has discussed but has not made a decision about permitting enlisted to fly unmanned aircraft. So far, a senior chief has flown the Fire Scout during two deployments.

"Ideally, we take them from the SH-60 community and add to them a five-week program, mainly simulator-based," said Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager for Fire Scout.

It's a similar training pipeline for Fire Scout maintainers, he said.

Most of the Fire Scout community comes from the SH-60s, Smith said, but there is an NFO with an EA-6B Prowler background who will operate the unmanned helicopter during an upcoming deployment on the frigate Simpson. Additionally, a senior chief who received a private pilot's license and then completed the five-week UAV course flew the Fire Scout while deployed on the frigates McInerney and Halyburton.

It isn't certain how many new aviation jobs the Fire Scout would create after becoming fully operational. The numbers get convoluted because Fire Scouts and Seahawks will fly together in composite squadrons, with maintainers and operators working with both types of aircraft at any given time. There may be a few new positions because land-based Fire Scouts are expected to operate without Seahawks alongside them, Lynch said.

Smith said he expects a similar training pipeline for other unmanned systems, but the specific requirements of various platforms may create some differences.

A spokesman for Naval Air Training Command said it does not have a UAV curriculum.

Fire Scout operators receive their training under Naval Air Systems Command in military and private facilities near Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. The location will change when Fire Scouts are used across the fleet, Smith said.

Evaluating their aircraft

The Naval Test Pilot School is training aviators to evaluate future UAVs. The school recently introduced a two-week course designed to train aviators to evaluate unmanned systems. Additionally, naval flight officers who complete an 11-month curriculum in airborne systems are prepared to critique new UAVs, said Cmdr. A.C. Lynch, commanding officer of the school.

"There's no manual for what they're doing," Lynch said of the trainees who will troubleshoot the new aircraft.

UAV test pilots have to test aircraft autonomy, what to do when datalinks are lost and other scenarios their manned aircraft brethren don't need to consider.

"It's not just the vehicle and the payload anymore," said Pat Svatek, an instructor and manager for the school's short courses, including the unmanned systems course.

The novelty of the field makes it difficult to determine the exact number of UAV test pilots needed. Lynch said officials know how long a pilot can spend in a cockpit, but they don't know how long someone can stay in a control room.

As work continues to put UAVs in the fleet, the test pilot school is including more unmanned systems material into rotary-wing and fixed-wing curriculums, Lynch said.

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