A career in the armed forces is something that many people consider after high school. Some find themselves drawn to military service from a young age with a desire to serve their country, perhaps due to family ties. Others find their way into the service through other skills and disciplines.
The US Air Force is proud to recruit many different people of different abilities into the service, with a growing range of roles. One area that has grown particularly rapidly is that of drone operations. There are now calls for more trainees and drone pilots in the US Air Force, and it is easier than ever to apply.
However, this line of drone work is not for everyone, and the US Air Force has only just realized the true implications of this form of UAV.
There are many questions to ask yourself before committing to this role. Do you understand the requirements and responsibilities? Do you have the determination and skill to get through the qualifications? Finally, do you have what it takes to handle the mental side of the job?
Drones are an essential part of so many industries that it is no surprise that the US armed forces utilize them too.
(Source: Brian McIntosh)
Drones have quickly developed from novelty toy and instrument of the rich and powerful to widespread tool with potential in many fields. It is not enough to call yourself a drone operator anymore. There are so many fields and industries that make use of these systems that the are clear distinctions between job titles. For example, there are drone operators to work in surveillance and videography, and then there are the Remote Piloted Aircraft Sensor Operators in the Air Force.
At one point, it was quite difficult to get a place as an RPA officer due to a mixture of the factor. First of all, places went to commissioned officers due to the nature of the role. There were also limited training places available to those that made the grade.
Now its seems that the US Airforce has made a slight U-turn by opening up the roles in a need to fill the gaps. There are more opportunities than ever to join the force in this capacity. The continued development of tech and drones means that this can only continue. The Airforce want more planes, more weaponized ones at that, with a new line of Reapers.
The Distinction Between The RPA And The UAV
The name Remote Piloted Aircraft Sensor Operator is quite a mouthful, perhaps to distance the role from that of other drone operators and pilots. This is understandable when we consider the work and training that goes into this post compared to some other roles. Not to mention the sensitivity of the tasks involved. Some RPA operators in the armed forces would probably be a little offended at the term drone operator. Their work goes much further than that.
We have to consider the reasons for these RPAs when we consider the work of the drone pilot in the US Airforce. There are sure to be times when surveillance work and videography are useful on the basis, perhaps with the maintenance of hard to reach places, and small drones and UAVs play their part. However, these roles with RPAs go beyond that into warfare and conflicts. The work of these drones and their pilots is crucial for the success of missions, the information gathered and the ongoing work of the military in key areas.
Then there is the fact that this isn’t your basic drone that you fly around the park.
It is important that we make the distinction here between drones in the air force and drones in commercial settings. This isn’t a quadcopter with a small camera that these pilots operate. Instead, they are more like small unmanned planes that bridge the gap between spy plane and UAV. They are substantial pieces of equipment with serious technical capabilities. At the moment, the US Airforce work with Predators and Reapers, with a desire to focus on improving the Reapers.
The scale and sophistication of these RPAs are clear in the Predator XP. This is the most recent model within a family of drones that stretches back as far as 1995. A lot has changed since then.
The Predator XP provides line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight data link systems, with access to multiple intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, cameras and radar systems. This highlights the difference between disciplines.
A camera on this RPA is not the same as the camera on a commercial drone. The addition of other ISR systems adds to the complexity. It does take skill and technical knowledge to fly these things.
So What Are These RPA Operators Responsible For?
There have long been jokes made about the roles of soldiers taken over by robots and automated devices. This soon evolved to comments about the roles of drones and the images of pilots flying UAVs into enemy airspace with what looked like video game console controllers. The problem with these jokes and memes is that they run the risk of trivializing the importance of these machines.
US Airforce drone pilots send unmanned machines into enemy territory to gain information on locations and bases without the need to put any human lives at risk. There is always the chance of someone spotting the RPA and shooting it down to prevent the information from traveling back. This is preferable to the alternative with a manned mission or spy plane.
The Airforce mention the following when discussing the role of these operators:
1) “perform pre and in-flight mission planning activities.”
2) “test and evaluate capabilities of new equipment and propriety of new procedures.”
3) “detect, analyze and discriminate between valid and invalid targets.”
4) “perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”.
5) “assist in air navigation, fire control planning and determining effective weapons controls and delivery tactics.”
6) “conduct immediate first battle damage assessments”.
Simply put, this means a range of potential requirements from planning the mission in addition to operating it, keeping an eye on the enemy, helping to weaponize the systems, determining the best targets and being first on the scene after a battle.
What Qualifications Do Drone Pilots Require?
The image of a soldier in a remote location, manipulating the controls of a far off UAV with a games controller, gives the impression of a laid back, low-skilled effort. However, this is far from the truth as these pilots require a lot of skill and qualifications to enter the service and work these missions.
A drone operator with a pilot’s license and a year in the industry can’t simply walk in and expect to work with the air force. There is a long process of qualifications and training here. After all, the US Air Force only wants the very best who are truly capable of flying these missions.
This all starts with some basic academic qualifications. The force look for candidates with at least a high school diploma, a GED with 15 college credits, or a GED. They also highlight general ASVAB requirements and electronics qualifications. Then there is the experience of the candidate. They tend to look at those with flight experience, as this is both beneficial and desired, but it is possible to train without it.
Applicants must also complete a current Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), 7.5 weeks of basic military training and take part in Airmen’s Week. Finally, all applicants must be between the ages of 17 and 39 with a normal color vision for the operation of the drone. Their status upon completion is “Enlisted Airman with credits earned towards Air and Space Operations Technology.”
What About The Qualities Required And The Best Type Of Person For The Job?
Of course, we have to remember that there is more than just physical skill and technical knowledge involved in the qualifications to be a drone pilot in the US Airforce. There are mental capabilities and mindsets required to work well in this environment. This all goes back to that idea of why these pilots fly the drones.
There are deeper implications and moral issues involved with all drone flights. It is one thing to manage a safe, secure flight to and from the designated area with the right footage.
There are also the consequences of these actions. What will happen as a result of the mission? What action will occur if the mission is a success? Some pilots may not know, they may go blindly into their next task with nothing but assumptions. Those that cannot handle those assumption and potential consequences cannot fly drones for the military.
Others will know all too well what is happening and what the implications are. These pilots are those that help with the target identification and weaponization, and those that end up firing a weapon on a person of interest. There are misconceptions about the role of the drone pilot in this situation. That it is perhaps easy to do this in this remote location where they can distance themselves from battle.
However, some say it is easier to be in the war zone where it makes a little more sense, and there is time to process the action on deployment. Here pilots go home to their family after a shift, like a typical 9-5 job, and struggle to answer the question of “how was your day.”
This job is tough to handle, and all trainees need to prepare themselves.
There is the sense here that this is a job full of excitement, like a real-life video game where pilots get to fly around, look for trouble and shoot the bad guys. There is this possibility of action, but most of the shift requires a lot of basic screen monitoring.
Pilots have described the experience as 99% boredom and 1% adrenaline rush, which can take its toll on a shift. There are three shifts per day, each of which is a long time to concentrate on a screen and fly successfully. They are, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., and 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. They can arrive around an hour before the shift starts for a mass briefing on the weather, changes in instructions for the area and other notes from the previous day.
There is then a briefing on the day’s specific mission and an assessment of crew readiness regarding sleep, stress levels and health. They then head to the Ground Control Station (GCS) to replace the previous shift. It is a long period of little action with the potential for that 1%.
It is important to consider why you want to fly a drone in the US Air Force, and if you can handle it.
Anyone considering a move as a drone pilot in the US Air Force needs to consider their reasons for signing up in the first place. Which is the most important priority here? Serving the country or flying a drone? Those that think that flying a drone with the military is the most exciting job prospect with drones need to reconsider. Those that make the grade do some vital work, but it takes a lot of training and hard work to get there.
Also, there are opportunities in other fields where the training is easy, up to date and the work is enjoyable. Those that put the service before the job will stick it out, work their way through and enjoy the role. Still, it is important to remember the qualifications that the air force is after. A high school drops out with few formal qualifications into going to get far, no matter how badly they want it.
The Air Force took its time to wise up to impact of drones and the need to switch enrollment options from commissioned officers to enrolled airmen. Now the opportunities have increased to the point where there aren’t enough drone pilots to fulfill the needs. There is no doubt that the number of positions for RPA operators will only grow in the coming years.
Drones are a necessity with scope for increased numbers and more advanced tech. The US Air Force will always want to best pilots rising through the ranks to take the controls and succeed in these complex missions.