Pilot and Sensor Operator School House Within Wing's Reach

Maj. Eric Fagerland, a 163d Reconnaissance Wing Predator Pilot, conducts a mission briefing at the March Field Air Museum during an Open Aircraft Day this month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eduardo Cervantes)

Maj. Eric Fagerland, a 163d Reconnaissance Wing Predator Pilot, conducts a mission briefing at the March Field Air Museum during an Open Aircraft Day this month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eduardo Cervantes)

A 163d Reconnaissance Wing hanger sits empty at Southern California Logistics Airport. The wing, which is located at March Air Reserve Base, will use the airport as part of the Predator schoolhouse in the near future. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lt. Col. Mark Moritz)

A 163d Reconnaissance Wing hanger sits empty at Southern California Logistics Airport. The wing, which is located at March Air Reserve Base, will use the airport as part of the Predator schoolhouse in the near future. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lt. Col. Mark Moritz)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- Becoming a predator-flying schoolhouse is within the Wings reach. With ongoing predator operations currently being conducted and the maintenance schoolhouse slated to open in the next four months, opening the Flying Training Unit (FTU) along with the Launch and Recovery Element (LRE) may happen as early as late summer 2008.

"There are many pieces that will have to come together before we can begin the FTU," said 196th Reconnaissance Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Kirby Colas.

One of the pieces is training pilots and sensor operators so that they can become instructors. There are three areas that require formal instruction in the predator. The FTU "Schoolhouse" for basic predator classes, LRE for launch and recovery, and Combat Mission Ready (CMR) to certify members combat skills prior to flying in the AOR.

"The intent is to get all instructors qualified to teach any one of the three core capabilities," said Lt. Col. Colas, "that enables us to have the most up to date combat procedures taught in the FTU."

The squadron currently has eight crews (pilot/sensor) able to teach the CMR portion and two pilots with FTU experience. The rest will have to attend Creech AFB again for an instructor course.

"We haven't gotten that far yet," said Flight Training Manager Maj. Eric Fagerland. The squadron plans to send it's instructors for FTU training beginning in early 2008.

"Once we have trained instructors and facilities, we will start training our own," said Lt. Col. Colas. "CE is working hard to completely remodel two buildings to give us a leading edge operational squadron and schoolhouse facility."

Commenting on Wing predator pilot mission instructors who recently qualified, Maj. Fagerland (their instructor at Nellis AFB) said, "They did really well. Those who went through the training already had 1000s of tanker hours. They went into the training bringing a lot of wisdom." Most, if not all, of those trained were previous instructors.

Instructor training averages about two weeks for each course. When fully operational the squadron will have at least16 pilot sensor operator instructors. The current instructor to student ratio is about 1:1.

How will the FTU work? Guard students will graduate undergraduate pilot training (SUPT) and attend the three-month predator course. Air Force active-duty and reserve pilots would come to the FTU after doing an assignment in another aircraft. Those on a sensor operator path would attend the three-month course after attending a course at Goodfellow AFB, Texas to become an Intel Imagery Analyst. A predator-specific Imagery Analysis course should be offered this fall and should shorten the current course by half. Both Air Force pilots and sensor operators are also required to take a two-week Joint Firepower Course at Nellis AFB, Nev. After graduating the Grizzly FTU, qualified crews would return home for CMR check out and seasoning in the mission.

Pilots attending predator training straight out of UPT is a new concept. Only guard pilots are permitted to do this. The reason is that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are not considered a major weapons system in the Air Force, so there are no career predator pilots or sensor operators. In the past, the career field has been relatively small so the predator assignment was considered a temporary duty assignment rather than a permanent one.

How will the LRE work? This aspect of training will be conducted out Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA) and will last about two weeks. Here pilots and sensor operators are taught take-offs and landings in the predator. Another aspect to SCLA would be pilots and sensor operators would do actual flying missions. This would occur during the three-month predator course.

"The Wing will initially begin operations using just a few aircraft and a small ground control station. Eventually, the Wing plans to own a dozen aircraft," said Lt. Col. Colas.

Some of the students who will go through the launch and recovery school will be able to deploy overseas. Several Wing traditional pilots who fly predator in their civilian jobs will be qualified and perform LRE duty at SCLA.

"Some instructors will go through the LRE course to teach it and/or act as a takeoff and land crew for the FTU mission (the plane launches out of SCLA, the FTU "grabs" it and flies it from March)," said Maj. Fagerland.

From March ARB, missions conducted overseas use aircraft that are "handed off" to our aircrews after the LRE has done the take off event. Overseas, the aircrews fly all aspects of launching and recovering the predator.

When the schoolhouse is up and running the goal is to graduate 40 pilots and 40 sensor operators a year. "The squadron will produce a quarter of the students that Creech produces," said Lt. Col. Colas.