ALAMOGORDO, NM. - Holloman Air Force Base just outside Alamogordo has become a training ground for the next generation of unmanned aircraft pilots.
Two of these planes are the MQ-1 and the more powerful MQ-9. Pilots don’t sit inside the plane, but control it from seats that look just like the inside of a cockpit.
Anthony, a captain at Holloman Air Force Base, is now an MQ-9 instructor and was one of the first to finish training at Holloman.
“We had the lieutenant colonel come to my base, he spoke to us. He came to us and told us about the possibilities and the future of the airframe and it sounded like something that I thought would be cool and I volunteered”
He went through the second flight unit that trained at Holloman.
“From then on, I went operational, spent three and a half years operational and then came back here to teach.”
It takes six months to a year to be trained to fly one of these planes. Far from the image of a drone aircraft that’s sent out on autopilot.
“There’s no point in time when this aircraft is operating on its own. There’s always a pilot and there’s always gonna be a sensor in the seat controlling every move that the aircraft makes.
The idea of remotely controlled or unmanned aircraft has been around for quite a while. Historian James Burrett says it goes back to the 1860’s.
“During the Civil War, they used balloons initially. Not very successful, not terribly accurate. They relied on a timer. There was no radio control at that point.”
The technology progressed, from radio-guided bombs in World War II to the laser-guided missiles that can be launched from the MQ-1 and MQ-9.
“They’re used to observe an area, if necessary attack targets in that area, but it’s a progression that began back in 1863.”
Jeff Patton, a commander of the 9th Attack Squadron at Holloman says the base trains both pilots that haven’t flown before and those that flew other types of planes.
“We also train new RPA pilots from scratch and so our challenge is train those brand new student pilots up to the same level as the experienced pilot that crosses over from another platform,” said Patton.
Either way, the most important challenge is doing a lot at once.
“I think the hardest thing about operating the platform is that there are so many forms of communication coming into a GCS and so multitasking is the biggest challenge for pilots to learn as they go through the program.”
Remotely piloting the planes makes sense. They cost less and use fewer resources, and more importantly keep pilots safe if something were to happen to one of the planes.
“It’s pretty much the way of the future. There’s a lot of things and a lot of capabilities that this aircraft has that’s gonna help us in the future so I’ve been excited to be part of that development,” said Capt. Anthony.