Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
ALAMOGORDO – A dozen students occupy the “cockpits” of a half-dozen aircraft flying through Air Force airspace, but the students haven’t left the ground.
They are piloting drones from inside ground control stations at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo as part of their training to pilot the unmanned aircraft responsible for an increasing number of military surveillance and combat missions.
Holloman’s training program for operating “RPAs,” or remotely piloted aircraft – the Air Force prefers this acronym to the word “drone” – has grown exponentially since its inception in 2009. This fiscal year, 714 students will graduate, up from 136 graduates during the program’s first year.
The program has trained nearly every Air Force pilot of the MQ-1 “Predator” and MQ-9 “Reaper” drones, according to training squadron commander Lt. Col. Calvin Powell.
“We have had an over 500 percent growth in student throughput, and we still cannot meet the total demand of the operational units in order to maintain enough air crew in the fight,” Powell said during a presentation this week to the Journal and other media that drew mainly international journalists, including from Norway, Switzerland, France, Italy and Romania.
The use of drones in combat missions in Afghanistan and in fighting suspected terrorists in other nations has occasionally drawn global scrutiny.
Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report examining six targeted killings by U.S.-operated drones in Yemen between 2009 and 2013. The report found that two of the attacks “killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war,” while the others “may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.”
The U.S. government has said it takes all possible precautions in drone attacks.
Answering a question about collateral damage in drone missile strikes, Powell said, “There are humans in the chain from the start to the finish. Any time you have humans involved, there is always opportunity for human error. However, we go to great lengths from the very beginning of our training to minimize that aspect of it.”
Holloman students fly actual drones for practice, but all the “missions” are simulated; there is no live fire. There are no drone combat missions launched from Holloman, although many drone combat missions in Afghanistan are operated from Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, according to a Holloman spokesman.
Holloman has four MQ-1s and six MQ-9s for training.
About the size of a Cessna 172, the MQ-1 drone can carry two Hellfire missiles and fly for up to 20 hours. It’s the smaller of the two drones and is distinctive for its downward-facing tails.
The larger MQ-9 drone is about the size of the A-10 attack jet known as the “Warthog” – a plane that could soon be scrapped by congressional budget cuts. It can carry up to four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound, laser-guided bombs. It’s faster than the MQ-1 but is heavier and burns more fuel. It can fly for shorter stretches, up to 16 hours.
The Holloman training program has attracted both Air Force pilots of traditional aircraft as well as a younger generation of airmen who, as drone pilots, have never left the ground.
Among the traditional pilots in the program was a captain who flew B1 bomber jets in Afghanistan before signing up for Holloman’s first class of drone pilots. Now a Holloman instructor, he said flying MQ-9s was just as rewarding and yet he didn’t have to deploy.