One Man's Career: Fighters to Airliners to Drones

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This week, AVweb’s blog space will feature a two-part story from James Belton, a Gen X pilot who has done what the previous generation of pilots could not: Evolved from pistons, to jets, to drones. Here’s part two, the author's transition to drone pilot and unit commander.

It’s one kind of flying to sit above hostile territory in an airplane as capable as the F-16 and quite another to fly a similar mission with a remotely piloted aircraft like the Predator. Although I never expected to, I have done both.

The Predator was an armed recce or reconnaissance drone that could shoot Hellfire missiles. The MQ9 Reaper is a larger, faster and far more capable weapon system. It’s not the sort of thing any fighter pilot necessarily expects to operate, but that’s where my career took me.

While deployed to Balad Airbase, Iraq, in 2006, I was lucky enough to see the first Reaper take off for a combat mission from that location. Pilots a half a world away in Nevada were flying the Reaper in chunks of sky called kill boxes. If you had told this fighter pilot that he was gonna fly a Reaper, I would have said you were crazy.  

As luck, politics and funding would have it, I flew my first Reaper combat sortie in May of 2010. After the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission hinted that New York Air Guards 174th Fighter Wing was a place fighters would no longer fly, the unit’s military leadership saw that the new Reaper mission would be a windfall for the Guard. 

The Air Force was looking for a place to man its new armed recce drones. A mutually beneficial decision landed the MQ9 mission right at Hancock field in Syracuse. In a blink, my days as a fighter pilot were over. I flew my last F-16 sortie in January 2010. I reported to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico later that month and learned to fly the Reaper.

While the Reaper was the latest in drone weapon technology, I was unimpressed by the interface and system presentation of this weapon system. Not only was the Reaper underdeveloped, pilots typically were only trained to fly combat missions. A typical pilot did not perform takeoffs and landings. 

You “gained” the aircraft while it was already airborne. A launch and recovery crew accomplished takeoffs and landings at the remote locations the Reaper operated. Combat pilots didn’t live with the aircraft. That was the charm of the system. It provided for a very small footprint of personnel in the combat zone. 

My training was not top notch, to be honest. It felt nothing like when I was learning to fly the F-16. Everything was new and the entire course felt underdeveloped and incomplete. At Holloman, we shared the ramp with an F-22 squadron. The best of the best with an also ran.   

I felt like the second string on the JV team. The holes in the MQ9 training have been slowly filled in over the years but initially, my impression of flying a remotely piloted aircraft was mediocre at best. Part of the charm, or lack thereof as a Reaper pilot, was the heavy reliance on the autopilot. An awkward control rack and instrument display obviously designed by engineers who weren’t pilots made flying the MQ9 an unfulfilling experience. 

As a pilot who virtually wore the F-16 like a flying suit and felt every G and ripple of excitement that this magnificent machine carved in the sky, the sublime and even mind-numbingly boring operation of the Reaper was worse than kissing your sister. 

Many Reaper pilots rely so heavily on the autopilot system and stay so narrowly in their assigned airspace that Reaper ops was not much like real flying at all. Not to sell this experience too short, the Reaper is an extremely effective weapon and surveillance system. It is very stable and can carry a significant load of weapons.

You can deliver these weapons on a moment's notice with pinpoint accuracy while going unnoticed by anyone in the target area, all while remaining in the kill box for more than 20 hours. Granted, the F-16 was exciting and effective as a weapon in its own right, but the Reaper was just as effective in delivering weapons. As far as gathering intelligence and loitering in the target area, the Reaper is unmatched, especially for the price. The cost of this type of battlefield technology combined with the small support troop footprint was a windfall in combat operations in battle-spaces where fighters had achieved air supremacy. 

In 2012, I was selected to standup a Launch and Recovery Element Detachment (LRE) for the 174th Attack Wing. The fighter wing had become an attack wing with the placement of Reapers. Although the lion’s share of time flying a Reaper is spent in a recce mission, most war fighters prefer attack and fighter nomenclature over surveillance and recce monikers. 

I attended training for the Reaper LRE at Creech Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas. This is where I finally had learned to fly the Reaper. Creech is where I performed my first walk-around inspection of a Reaper prior to flying one. This came a full two years after I flew my first Reaper at Holloman Air Force Base. 

Any pilot of a manned aircraft would agree that this was indeed a strange and perhaps a brave new world of aviation. Pilotless aircraft were not a notional but a real threat to the dashing figure we all see in the mirror. Would this new technology and remote endeavor replace pilots as we know them? On a long enough timeline, yes it will. 

This foreboding opinion is based on experience that none of my pilot friends want to hear about. We all fancy ourselves as fearlessly irreplaceable. Unfortunately we are not. The very F-16s I was flying in Syracuse were flown to the panhandle of Florida and retrofitted to replace the F-4s that I used to shoot missiles at in the Combat Archer squadron. The F-16 is now a target drone. 

My training at Creech for work as an LRE detachment commander was far more complete and refined than my initial Reaper school. Syracuse was selected as a new schoolhouse for Reaper pilots. We were chosen to augment training occurring at Holloman and Creech in the active duty. The Air National Guard had found an important niche and was now training the next generation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots. 

RPA is a more accurate name for the drones flown by the Air Force. These large aircraft are not the same machines that drone enthusiasts fly for taking pictures and videos of their friends and family. Not to diminish what a small drone can do, but an 11,000-pound turboprop RPA armed to the teeth is a very different responsibility than a handheld drone.

In my job as an LRE commander, I was stationed at Fort Drum in far upstate New York. The reason we decided to operate out of an Army Airfield was because the FAA mandated that large RPAs required a chase aircraft with pilots providing see-and-avoid services concerning other aircraft nearby. 

Manned aircraft are required to see and avoid each other. While RPAs have robust sensors and cameras, the old guard at the FAA was not comfortable enough with these systems to turn them loose in the National Air Space without a set of good old fashioned eyeballs. This, of course, requires an expensive and clumsy workaround with two aircraft in formation and limited to visual meteorological weather conditions.

The army airfield serving Fort Drum is located just over a mile from the restricted military airspace, so the FAA would allow Reaper operations without chase to transit that airspace. We operated out of Fort Drum for several years until the FAA approved a Course of Action that involved a Civil Air Patrol chase plane to escort our Reapers to Restricted Airspace. Although we have operated the Reaper for almost 15 years in the Air Force and for six years in upstate New York, the FAA still requires the chase aircraft. Robust ground-based sense-and-avoid systems are currently being tested, but the pace of change toward routine RPA operations in the NAS is comparable to the typical hot air balloon. 

The FAA is actively developing rules and regulations towards integration of RPAs in the NAS. Smaller drones are in their own category and are restricted by altitude and distance from airport operations.  Incidents like the drone interference recently near Gatwick Airport in England that resulted in many airline diversions does little to instill confidence in the government efforts to allow RPAs to operate freely.

In my life as a pilot I used every cue I could to maintain the highest level of safety. As a drone pilot, I could no longer use the seat of my pants to fly the aircraft. It was like learning a different language. The explosion of drone technology and camera clarity as well as sensor and positioning systems outpaced regulations and industry structure. 

Even though drones are considered pilotless, a well-trained and qualified pilot is still required to operate these aircraft. When I found out that I would be a drone pilot, I worried that my profession was disappearing. The more familiar I became with the near future limits of technology, I was reassured that pilots will fly in airliners for my lifetime. 

To operate an RPA beyond visual range, the system must employ satellite or other expensive technology. While using this technology, you can certainly accomplish the job, but at the end of the day, a pilot sitting in the cockpit flying by the seat of his pants is cheaper and probably safer and more reassuring to passengers.

Whereas technology creates many opportunities, the almighty dollar remains the delineator when it comes to what will be commonplace. Having a pilot on the pointy end of an airliner ensures that there is a human in the loop. There is a person who cares very deeply about their own well-being as much as those who ride behind in the cabin. I understand that the march of technology may indeed help to replace pilots in the aircraft, but what can never be remotely replaced is that level of professionalism and care a well-trained pilot brings to the aviation equation.   

Lt Col James T. Belton