Deep in the 60,000 acres of desert on this desolate air base, past a billboard that shows a Predator soaring in the sky, lies a high-security compound where America’s drone pilots learn to hunt and kill from half a world away.
But “the Farm,” as the little-known Air Force boot camp is known, faces a crisis.
Experienced pilots and crews complain of too much work, too much strain and too little chance for promotion operating the Predator and Reaper drones that provide surveillance and that fire missiles in Iraq, Syria and other war zones. Partly as a result, too few young officers want to join their ranks.
The Air Force has struggled with a drone pilot shortage since at least 2007, records show. In fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, the Air Force trained 180 new pilots while 240 veterans left the field.
“It’s extremely stressful and extremely difficult,” said Peter “Pepe” LeHew, who retired in 2012 and joined private industry. He called the work, which sometimes involved flying surveillance in one country in the morning and bombing another in the afternoon, “mentally fatiguing.”
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GRAND FORKS, N.D., Sept. 23 (UPI) — General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. says it is to open a training academy on Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota for operators of its remotely piloted aircraft.
A 10-year lease for its site has been signed and ground breaking is expected soon, with operations beginning next year.
“The mission of the GA-ASI Training Academy is to increase the overall capacity for flight crew training on our aircraft systems,” said Linden P. Blue, GA-ASI chief executive officer. “The Training Academy will complement our customers’ organic training capabilities and fill the growing need across our RPA enterprise to address the pilot shortage.”
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CAE’s defence lead has revealed plans to replicate the unmanned air vehicle training that it offers to the US Air Force to more operators of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems family of Predator UAVs.
The company currently provides pilot training for the MQ-1 and MQ-9 UAVs to the USAF at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, but with more sales of the type – particularly in Europe – Gene Colabatistto, group president of defence and security, is hoping that more “centres of excellence” can be established worldwide.
“The strategy is that we want to be aligned with the Predator,” Colabatistto said during a media briefing at Holloman AFB, adding that there is an opportunity in every region – plus more in the USA – and that CAE has locations for these in mind.
Italy is the first operator nation to acquire its own simulator for its Predator fleet, suggesting that Rome could be pursuing an intention to establish itself as a centre for training in Europe.
France, Italy and the UK all carry out their pilot training at Holloman, while Dutch personnel are due to begin training next year.
“If we create a greater capability in Italy, for example, that’s less training here [at Holloman],” Colabatistto says. “If I could do more, I’d do more with Predator – I haven’t saturated this market yet.
“We anticipated growth, established an agreement with General Atomics, and developed a product line.”
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Drone operators fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday expressing concern over the Pentagon’s plans to dramatically increase drone flights over the next four years amid a drone pilot shortfall.
“There is indeed a need for broadened surveillance and intelligence collection, but I remain very concerned that the anticipated growth is unsustainable without corresponding growth in recruitment, training, and retention,” he wrote in a Sept. 1 letter.
Heinrich is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and represents Holloman Air Force Base and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, which he said are the nation’s premier drone pilot training locations.
Last month, the Pentagon confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that it was planning to increase by 50 percent the number of daily drone flights to cover hotspots including Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, the South China Sea and North Africa.
Heinrich in his letter also urged the Pentagon to complete a report on how it will rectify drone pilot shortfalls.
The senator included language in the 2016 defense policy bill requiring the Air Force to submit a report on drone pilot manning policies and actions the Air Force will take to rectify personnel shortfalls, such as recruitment and retention bonuses, incentive pay, using enlisted personnel, and considerations for promotion.
He also noted in his letter that the Air Force was losing drone pilots faster than it could train new ones, and the force is already stretched thin.
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