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Flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2002 – The Predator is just like every other aircraft, you just don't ride in it.

That's the conclusion of Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Mathewson, commander of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. He should know, as his unit flies 24 of the unmanned aerial vehicles on missions around the world.

Mathewson, who flew F-15Cs before joining the squadron, said pilots qualified in other aircraft feel right at home in the Predator world.

The whole process involved in flying a mission in a Predator is virtually the same as any other aircraft, he said. Before the mission pilots attend briefings covering weather, route and intelligence reports.

"You step to the airplane and do the pre-flight check," Mathewson said. "When you're finished, instead of getting in the cockpit, you get in a ground-control station."

The transportable station is like a cockpit. Predators are flown the same as crewed aircraft are. A pilot sits in the left seat, the officer in charge of the sensors is in the right seat and behind them is a flight engineer. The cockpit control array includes a stick, rudder and all the other switches, buttons and lights any other plane would have.

Once in, they start engines, taxi and it's "ready for takeoff."

The same procedures apply upon landing. "We land, taxi back and debrief the mission just like any other," Mathewson said.

Mathewson said there were some surprises when he came to the aircraft. "For one, it's larger than I thought," he said. "Also, when you are flying the aircraft, you know you're not aboard it, but you think you are."

Mathewson, who has commanded the squadron for 18 months, said pilots also realize they're not in simulators, but on real missions. There's no pushing the reset button if they're "shot down" or encounter an unrecoverable problem.

"You are aware that what you're controlling is a real aircraft," he said. And, in fact, flying the Predator is harder than flying a manned aircraft in many ways, he added.

"It's more challenging than landing an F-15," he said. "There's no sound, no 'seat-of-the-pants' feel to it, and the peripheral vision is limited."

Maintenance of the aircraft is the same as any other plane in the Air Force. Mathewson said the same number of specialties is needed to maintain the aircraft, generate and plan missions, and service the payloads. All told. Predator squadrons have 350 to 400 personnel, including 27 pilots. He said aircrew members come from all walks of Air Force life. He has crew members who started in C-17s, C- 135s, F-15s and C-141s.

Another thing the Predator can do that other aircraft can't is switch crews. The aircraft can fly up to 40 hours at a stretch, but there's no need for one crew to fly the whole mission, Mathewson said.

"We mitigate the fatigue by changing out pilots and sensor operators every four hours," he said. Pilots and sensor operators have so much information to process that four hours is about as much as they can take. He said each mission is briefed to a crew of two pilots and four sensor operators.

The aircrews in the squadron have to adhere to the same crew rest routines and must meet the same physical requirements as manned-aircraft crew members.

Mathewson said the experience with the Predator has been eye opening for him. "I'm a zealot," he said. "I know this is going to be part of the air power future, and I can see from our successes in Operation Enduring Freedom that this is going to play a pivotal role in air power for years to come."

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