Wednesday, March 31, 2010

UAVs: The Pilot and the Operator Can Be Friends

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I’d like to set the record straight on an issue of minor importance.

I tweeted some disparaging comments about the Predator-B Unmanned Aircraft System that the US Customs and Border Patrol brought to Oshkosh last year. The kind of rhetoric to which pilots are given from time to time. Nothing particularly vitriolic, but disparaging nevertheless. That got a lot of traction and I found myself widely re-tweeted. So much so that I actually began to hope sincerely that no harm came to the Predator because I expected to be questioned if it did. Even though I was still in Michigan at the time.

Since then, I think I’ve gained a reputation as the new-media community’s chief UAV basher. I probably deserve some of that reputation, but not all of it. In this little treatise, I thought I’d claim such of that reputation as I truly deserve and disclaim the rest.

To set the table, I’m talking about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or “UAVs,” although I understand that the preferred term is now Unmanned Aircraft System or “UAS.” I’m going to use the term “UAV” in this piece because it’s more widely used.

In particular, I’m talking about systems like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper, and their brethren. I realize that the inventory of the US and other nations contains many more and varied examples than these, but these models best typify what I think the average aviator has in mind when he or she talks about UAVs.

I’ll start right out and say that I appreciate what UAVs can do. They can go places and loiter. They don’t get tired (even if they do get thirsty after awhile). They go into dangerous areas where we’d rather not risk a human. They carry lots of automation and can accomplish reconnaissance, attack, and other missions. Hear me now, podsphere: UAVs are great platforms for what they are and what they do. I’m glad they’re there. I’m glad that my friends – some of whom are fighter, bomber, and other military pilots – don’t have to unnecessarily risk life and limb to perform certain missions.

I walked into a hobby shop not long ago looking for a rocket kit for my son, Cole – callsign FOD. The CAP cadet commander had offered to let FOD launch a model rocket along with the squadron’s cadets and I wanted to go grab a rocket kit and help him build it.

You can’t walk into a store like that without noticing the selection of radio-controlled aircraft. The salesman sidled over to me after a few minutes later and asked if he could help me. I said that I was just there for the rocket, but that he could answer a couple of questions. I said, “I’m guessing that pilots who have no RC experience walk in here all the time thinking that they’re going to be great RC operators right off the bat because of their flight experience. And I’m guessing that they’re dead wrong about that.”

He said, “Sir, you’re the first person to walk in here and get that right. I sell $500 RC outfits to pilots every weekend and, if you believe the stories, every one of those aircraft ends up in a heap within 300 feet of the end of the runway. The old-hand RC guys like to gather around and watch these guys crater these expensive kits. It drives down the price of used controllers because there are so many without airplanes associated with them.

This is by oblique way of conceding that flying a UAV takes some skill. In certain instances, more skill than it takes to fly an aircraft while aboard the aircraft. Additionally, the person in command of the UAV has to manage surveillance, weapons, and other systems, as well as coordinate with other assets and with the chain of command of the organization for which the aircraft is operated. Phrases like “one-armed paper hanger come to mind.” I get that.

To address another issue associated with UAVs, and to risk making myself unpopular among my pilot friends, let’s talk about UAVs sharing airspace with occupied aircraft. Many pilots object. They complain that UAVs can’t adequately see and avoid VFR traffic.

I’m not sure that I buy that. The average VFR pilot does a rotten job of seeing other traffic in the first place. My suspicions to that effect were confirmed when I began regularly flying aircraft with glass panels that featured traffic avoidance information. For every aircraft within the relevant area that I picked up visually, there were at least six others that showed up on the screen that no one in the cockpit saw or would have seen. And I have a pretty good VFR scan.

As long as a UAV is flying in a radar environment, I can’t seem to gather the bile to complain about sharing the sky with a UAV. Radar is pretty good. Even when you have aircraft out there without transponders that aren’t shown on traffic avoidance systems. Heck, I called out a clump of children’s helium balloons to the Jackson tower a few weeks ago after flying within a couple of hundred feet of them right after coming out from under the hood on an approach. The tower acknowledged having seen them and said that it was monitoring their progress across the airspace. If the tower can see a clump of balloons, it’s going to be able to see your aircraft, even if it’s a Part 103 powered paraglider.

By the way, I’m not as nuts about UAVs flying around non-radar environments. But that’s another essay.

So let’s get to the point. What made me tweet disparaging things about UAVs last year?

I began flying because – well – I wanted to fly. To be in the aircraft. To slip the surly bounds and all that that entails. I like to pull Gs. I like to bury a wing and enjoy exercising the patience required to let the nose come through the horizon before finishing out a perfect wingover. Even if the now-angry guy in the right seat seems to think that the maneuver was supposed to be part of a lazy eight. And particularly if the guy is behind me and is far from angry and suggests that I pop it up more steeply on the next one.

I satisfy a need up there that cannot be satisfied by the experience that a UAV operator has as such. It can’t be done. I need to be aboard the airplane. Sure, I fly a lot of sim when I really need to work out the bugs for instrument flight. But there’s no way I’d go through that grief and aggravation if I weren’t doing so that I could go do it for real.

I’ve been offered a few unique simulator experiences. I mean the kind where I likely would be required to leave the cameras and audio recorders in the rental car. That cool. I’ll certainly pursue them and I think that they’ll be eye-opening and that even an account of the experience that doesn’t include audio or video would be compelling here on the show.

But even a sim experience like that would be so much more compelling if it was somehow linked to flying the real thing. Heck, I’d build a cardboard mockup of my own in my basement and run switchology blindfolded just to prepare for the sim if I thought that doing well enough in the sim would get me into the airplane. (And don’t think that I haven’t done just that. Some of the demo pilots who have flown me might be surprised to find that the guy in back knows all the boldface and showed up for the ride fully prepared to do a stand-up in front of the squadron if called upon.)

It’s about flying in the aircraft. Or doing things that lead up to flying in the aircraft. And the closer to controlling and commanding the aircraft in three dimensions, the better.

Several people, not the least of whom is Jack Hodgson of UCAP, have pressed the issue of nomenclature for the person or persons operating the controls of a UAV. Is that person a pilot? Or something else?

I say without equivocation that that person is properly an “operator.” And not a “pilot.” I mark the difference by whether the person operating the aircraft is in the aircraft itself. Can feel the inertial forces. Has skin in the game, as it were. And is satisfying a need by that person to be well up into the third dimension.

If I said unnecessarily belligerent things over Twitter about the Predator B at Oshkosh, it was because Oshkosh to me is a place where pilots gather. Aviation enthusiasts are welcome, too, but Oshkosh is about people talking in animated ways with others with whom they might have nothing in common other than the love of poking holes in the sky.

And then in comes the Predator. A platform that has everything except the pilot. It just seemed to me to be a discontinuous stick in the eye.

I live and work among non-pilots. People who don’t get it. Once or twice a year, I get to come to Oshkosh or a similar event and everything is perfect for a few precious days.

Then there’s the Predator sitting there among my tribe of pilots. Kind of like a Baby Ruth in the swimming pool, if you know what I mean. Very un-piloty.

So that’s why the tweets. It’s a pilot thing. It’s unfair to some extent and it’s a cheap shot at low-hanging fruit to another extent. But that’s how it struck me.

Another thought occurred to me recently, and this might have had something to do with the Oshkosh reaction. It’s only recently taken enough shape to try to nail it down with words, but I’ll give it a shot.

There are those who say that the last true fighter pilot already lives and breathes. And that he or she might not even be that young. We have the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, examples of fifth-generation fighters that will likely get us through the next 30 years in one form or another. But it has recently dawned on me that the kind of flying that I read about in Sabre Jet Ace when I was six might soon be outmoded.

A UAV might not be able to do everything as well as an occupied aircraft, but maybe the powers that be will decide that UAVs can do it well enough that all we have to do is deploy enough of them to make up in numbers what we lose in terms of precision and on-the-scene human evaluation. I personally don’t think we should get to that point. But it’s possible, and even likely, that someone in a position of power won't see it as I do and decide the matter the other way.

Reliance on automation and technology has gotten parts of the nation’s military into the ringer on prior occasions.

Look at fighter strategy in the Vietnam era. For example, the F-4 Phantom II was being deployed with no gun. Missiles only. Before that, US aviators has unmatched air dominance and a kill ratio that was determined more by fuel and payload than anything else. Then we launched aircraft with no guns into a hornet’s nest of more maneuverable enemy MiG 21s and had our asses handed to us. Even mounting a gun pod on the Phantom ended up being only a stopgap. Fighter pilots complained that, to borrow a phrase, it was like being in a knife fight in a phone booth armed with a spear.

The US Navy Fighter Weapons School (best known to, and loved by, many of us as “Top Gun”) originated to teach the art that lay fallow in Vietnam. John Boyd and the Fighter Mafia developed aircraft based on energy-maneuverability theory. The experience of Vietnam ultimately brought us the F-15, the F-16, and a kill ratio that was again determined almost entirely by gas and ammo. And we still have the dominance of the F/A-18, the F-22, and the F-35, among others, to show for that.

But, even so, the emphasis is on beyond-visual-range (“BVR”) engagement and JADAM munitions. Sure, they’re great for their purposes and important resources in the US inventory. The objective is to put warheads on foreheads and whatever does that best is fine by me.

But will we preserve the ability to cope reasonably if we again find ourselves in a phone booth?

My favorite other examples come from the US space program. Test pilots called the first astronauts “Spam in a can.” And with good reason. The initial vision for the space program was to fly overwhelmingly automated craft with the astronaut being relegated to meat.

But then the astronauts began proving themselves invaluable to the endeavor. Remember Gemini 8, where Neil Armstrong recovered the wildly out-of-control crew capsule by activating the retro system and separating from the Agena target vehicle? Or Pete Conrad and Alan Bean saving the Apollo 12 mission by making the right calls after being struck by lightning not once but twice?

Do you remember that June day in 1966 when the US first landed on the moon? Yeah, I said 1966. Surveyor 1. The first soft-landing of a spacecraft on the moon by the United States. Remember?

Of course not. The first moon landing was July 20, 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did it. Humans. Pilots. Real emissaries of humankind. Guys who were towering extensions of what you and I are in our general aviation aircraft.

I began the whole Airspeed thing as a way of getting into the very best aircraft and close to the very best pilots. And maybe getting some of that to rub off on me. But, lately, it has taken on a different vibe.

What if this is the last moment in history during which steely-eyed young men and women still regularly climb into supersonic aircraft and go hurtling through the sky in the way that got many of us as excited about flying as we became in the first place? What it the era is ending?

Some days, I feel like Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, as he rides out to see what remains of the American West before it’s gone. I know that sounds a little melodramatic and maybe it is. But we haven’t ordered any more F-22s. And the F-35 program, though exciting in its own way, seems a little like low Earth orbit after having been to the moon. And the number of US fighter/bomber slots isn’t growing.

They still make Beeman’s gum, but you have to look harder for it. And, when you find it, it’s usually on a display marked “nostalgia chewing gum.”

I’d chase these rides hard to bring them to you regardless of these other circumstances and ruminations. I go after them for the same reason that caused me to start the show more than four years ago. But it’s hard to ignore the feeling that it’s not just getting over the hurdle of explaining new media to military PAOs and what a great audience you guys are for their messages. It’s also a sense that the sun is setting on a certain conception of aviation and there’s something of a race to capture it before it’s gone.

I saw How to Train Your Dragon this weekend with FOD and Deadly. I really liked the flying in that movie. Whoever wireframed the flight animation had some idea of what it is to fly.

I saw the first half of the loop, viewed from the tip of the dragon’s wing looking back at the dragon and rider as though someone had mounted a camera there. I say that I saw the first half. I don’t know if there was a second half. I assume that there was. I couldn’t see. I think I choked back that sob, but I can’t be sure. Cole and Deadly were rather involved themselves.

That loop looked exactly like a nice, round loop does when viewed out the side window of a Super Decathlon from the front seat. I know this because I’ve worked hard and long enough, and have been lucky enough, to be one of the relatively few humans who knows what a loop looks like from the cockpit. My reaction was immediate and visceral. I didn’t expect it. And I couldn’t control it.

My point is that flight – real flight actually inside or otherwise attached to, an aircraft – is singular and special. There is no experience available on the ground that matches it. I know my drug of choice. It is singular and cannot be faked. When one needs a little time strapped to a dragon high above anything other than the immediate moment and in the middle of a fluid exchange of potential and kinetic energy, nothing else will do.

To the men and women who develop, maintain, and operate UAVs, thanks for all that you do. It’s amazing technology, it performs vital functions, and it avoids needlessly risking the lives and limbs of my friends. I’m glad that you people are on our side.

And the pilot and the operator can be friends. Each can appreciate what the other does. Just understand that the need to cause something to fly is different from the need to fly.

I’m hopelessly piloty. My viscera belong at altitude and sometimes inverted.

Maybe if you put a saddle on that Predator B. Slim Pickens style. Yeah. The pilot and the operator can be friends.

Picture: An MQ-9 Reaper flies above Creech Air Force Base, Nev., during a local training mission June 9, 2009. The 42nd Attack Squadron at Creech AFB operates the MQ-9. (U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Ridgeway. Used under 17 USC § 105 as a US government work. Available at


Julien said...

One century after we stopped riding horses because we had to, one can still ride a horse for the sheer joy of it.

The same will happen with airplanes I guess. A rift will form between UAVs and highly automated airliners on one side and recreational aviation on the other side.

We'll still have plenty of fun pulling G's in our Decathlons, but let's face it, this will be purely a hobby. Just like riding a horse, diving or restoring a vintage car.

wakemp said...

Great comment, got me thinking about the idea that it is a trade off is between the richness and serendipity of the experience (airplane) versus the efficiency in achieving a specific mission (UAV). Seems that we have similar discussions in a number of places. And I'm on different sides of that depending on circumstances. Like:Airplane is to UAV as Computer is to iPad

flyddw said...

Steve, nice story. I share your thoughts about a predator at oshkosh. I also share your thoughts about a pilot being IN the plane and an operator being outside.

Like a previous comment, however, I don't believe airplanes and real pilots are going anywhere anytime soon. I would rather see hundred of "robot" planes over hostile areas anyday, than place people there - no matter how skilled they are.

Hopefully, we can still use our great military pilots to protect our homeland from threats, and also help our allies in medium-ly dangerous stuff.

But I think using a pilot and a super expensive jet plane to chase people in the desert or mountains is a complete waste of resources. A "robot" device like a globalhawk that can loiter without fatigue, taking photos and recon - i much more efficient system.

When it comes to plane v plane, that's where our pilots, now and in the future, will shine!

Keep up the good work, friend! @flyddw

Anonymous said...

I'm a amateur rc'er, and we were flying out near Jackson, MS today when some guy name Joseph Evans with ECI-(their website indicates they are weapons developer) brought out these cases about the size of a pool table, 3ft. deep, and after pulling out a laptop, the lids of the cases blew open and 4, black, almost stealth looking crafts hovered out of the cases and moved to an altitude of about 50ft and then created some kind of shockwave when the jet's(I guess) came on and these things flew out of sight faster than anything I have seen-manned or otherwise...what the **** were those? What can do that?

Anonymous said...

I hate UAVs. I do disagree with the reasoning in the article for calling them UAV/UAS/RPA/etc. A rose by any other name is still a rose, therefore, a UAV by any other name is still a UAV and I still hate it. Enough of my anger, but I also do disagree with a comment. I want to be in the fight, I don't want a stupid UAV to fly in and launch a Hellfire. I want to drop the bomb, I want to fire the Maverick, I want to pull the trigger of the A-10's cannon. That is what I've wanted to do since I was in 2nd grade and that is what I hope to do in the future. Thanks for the article though. I'm glad someone dislikes UAVs although not as much as I seem to. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I came across this post and it caught my attention. I think the civilian world and perhaps a younger poster here may not have the right idea about UAVs.. I was once the same way.

You guys do realize that the Predator operator was in all likelihood a rated USAF Instructor pilot with thousands of hours in manned aircraft?

Sorry to be the lone voice of dissent- but seeing as Osh Kosh is a symposium for aviation- AirVenture- I think that UAVs should be there. Whether any of us who love the visceral feel of flying like it, they have a place in the inventory. In the cold calculus of warfare (or business) they simply make sense.

I think manned aircraft will always participate in warfare BUT the balance of numbers will change. This is not a bad thing.. for us anyway. Mechanized infantry replaced horseback cavalry- I do not hear many Civil War re enactors pushing to bring back linear infantry formations with muskets. Warfare sucks fellas... keep the F-22s for a peer level enemy and lets hit Fred Flintstone with the Pred, deal?

Joe said...

UAVs are going to move into the civilian market and rob me of my job prospects. I'm 30 years old, working on my helicopter instrument rating, probably too old to join any military aviation branch. SOL.

Somebody needs to write an article about people whose career dreams are being shattered by UAVs.