Cadet 2nd Class Jeremy Snell launches the RQ-11 Raven, a small hand-launched remote-controlled unmanned aerial system at the Air Force Academy parade field. Cadets will soon become evaluators in the Academy's unmanned aerial system program. (Liz Copan/Air Force)
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Some of the Air Force’s next generation of unmanned aerial vehicle pilots are likely to learn their skills from fellow cadets at the Air Force Academy.
In October, the academy for the first time made four junior cadets into instructors for its Unmanned Aircraft System Airmanship program, and one — Cadet 2nd Class Jacob Seabury — has also been made an evaluator. In an Oct. 27 interview, Col. John McCurdy, the director of the academy’s unmanned aerial vehicle programs, said three more juniors are likely to be approved as instructors in the next few weeks. More cadets could also be certified as evaluators as they distinguish themselves, he said.
McCurdy said that the academy’s shift toward cadets training other cadets on UAVs, instead of officers or contractors serving as instructors, is another sign of the increasing integration of unmanned aircraft into Air Force culture.
“Before the program started here five years ago, the attitude among the cadet wing toward UAVs was much more negative than it is now,” McCurdy said. “Once you get experience with these systems, you realize how capable they are and what the future can possibly hold. It gives the cadets a picture, almost at the operational level of war, of how the Air Force conducts business that they’ve never gotten before at the academy.”
And Seabury said Oct. 31 that having a background in flying UAVs will be a good career move.
“I want to be a fighter pilot, but in the future, I do want to get into the RPA career field,” Seabury said. “Maybe not immediately. But I do see that as the future. It’s not going anywhere. If anything, the technology’s going to advance even further, and we’re going to use it even more.”
Each summer, roughly 180 cadets learn how to fly small, hand-launched unmanned aircraft systems such as the 4.5-pound RQ-11 Raven.
The Defense Department’s agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration requires UAVs flown over academy airspace be no heavier than 20 pounds, and only at a low altitude.
The summer programs are essentially a two-week orientation class on UAVs, in which cadets learn basic flying techniques, McCurdy said. Cadets spend a week in the classroom, and then spend another week conducting about six training flights.
Some cadets keep learning about UAVs during the regular academic year, and can become instructors and evaluators.
The first batch of cadet instructors attended initial qualification training at Hurlburt Field, Fla., over the summer. This spring semester, McCurdy said, the academy is going to offer its first UAV flight test upgrade course, and he expects two to four of the cadet instructors will take the course to officially be certified as test pilots for small UAVs.
McCurdy said cadets can also learn how to design and build small remotely piloted aircraft, how to develop computer algorithms and communications links used to control UAVs, about electrical and computer engineering, and other skills necessary to fly unmanned aircraft.
And flying unmanned vehicles above the academy also allows cadets to learn about command and control in a safe environment, he said.
“The UAS [program] is a means to a lot of different ends,” McCurdy said.
Seabury said that sometimes, cadets piloting Ravens will use them to try to find other cadets on survival training.
“It’s their training to try and stay hidden, but it’s also our training to see if we can find the people we’re looking for,” Seabury said.
McCurdy said it’s likely that some cadets who finish the academy’s Unmanned Aircraft System Airmanship program will go on to pilot other unmanned aircraft such as Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks. He said two cadet instructors already plan to go into that career field, but going through the program does not lock cadets into that path.
The Ravens and other unmanned aircraft academy cadets are unarmed, and are only used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. But McCurdy said the academy has updated the software for its Ravens so they behave like the military’s more advanced UAVs, and that a Raven’s interface reminds him of the Global Hawk’s.
Seabury said the military uses Ravens for ISR all over the world, and the fundamental flight skill cadets learn piloting them will help them if they go on to learn to pilot other, larger unmanned aircraft.
It’s important to have cadet instructors take on leadership roles at the academy before they graduate and become officers, McCurdy said.
“They’re here to become leaders,” McCurdy said. “And there’s no better way to step up your leadership game at an early age than to be responsible for somebody else, in a fairly structured environment, where you have to know your stuff.”
And instruction is also a good way for cadets to figure out where their own skills are rusty, he said.
“You don’t know how much you don’t know until you start trying to teach somebody,” McCurdy said. “It’s a humbling experience.”■