LT. COL. SCOTT BUTLER
Combined Joint Task Force-10
It was a clear, cool day in Afghanistan when the aircraft departed the runway under perfect visual flight rules conditions. While climbing to cruise altitude in a left-hand orbit, air traffic control contacted the pilot and vectored him to a 180 heading to deconflict with other traffic. The pilot turned the aircraft and continued his climb. After about one minute on the new course, the pilot noticed terrain to his front that he would not clear, so he requested an alternate heading to 210 — a right turn to avoid it. ATC asked if he could accept a left turn to 110 because the right turn would have flown the aircraft toward the approach path of oncoming traffic. The pilot accepted the left turn, which turned him toward even higher terrain. The pilot tried to turn again, but it was too late — controlled flight into terrain and total loss of the aircraft.
The good news is no one in this accident was injured or killed because this was not a manned aircraft, but an unmanned aerial system. The bad news is the Army “lost” an expensive combat enabler. The “pilot” mentioned above was really an “aircraft operator” and also the “aircraft commander,” which is the UAS version of pilot in command. While the ultimate cause of the accident was the AC’s lack of situational awareness, the accident board found other issues that contributed and had started months earlier.
While there are many comparisons that cannot correlate between the manned and unmanned world of flying, there are many that can. Take a moment to think about the manned world. Would any commander sign off on a pilot to become a PC when he/she had just graduated flight school seven months prior? Sure, there are mitigating circumstances, such as when the pilot may have had previous flight experience. But that was not the case here. In fact, the AC in this case only had four months of actual flight experience post advanced individual training because the unit did not have organically assigned aircraft prior to deployment. The AC also progressed to Readiness Level 1 in only three weeks.
The rapid progression to RL1 and AC status can only be attributed to the Army’s high demand for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets without allowing enough training time for the operators to gain proficiency. These operators are highly proficient in their systems. Even the operators just coming from AIT know the systems inside and out, but the school cannot teach experience and airmanship. The Army is forcing commanders to make the hard choice of accepting risk in experience in order to meet mission requirements.
Adding more risk to this case was the fact that the unit did not have aircraft for home station training prior to deploying. The unit did what it could to mitigate this risk by sending a few operators to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, for refresher training. Not all of the operators received this opportunity and all deployed in RL3 status. The unit then progressed to RL1 in-country in an average of 21 days — even the pilots right out of flight school. In comparison, a manned platform aviator typically takes months, not weeks, to demonstrate the system proficiency and airmanship required to progress to RL1 immediately following flight school (a flight school that is a year long, not a few months).
What other military occupational specialty in the Army requires, or even allows, a private, fresh out of a seven-month AIT, to be in command of anything? Tank commanders are not privates. Truck commanders are not privates. If a private cannot even dispatch a HMMWV without a noncommissioned officer monitoring his actions, then why are we putting them in command of an armed, expensive aircraft that shares constricted airspace with manned aircraft? True, there is no risk to him/her in the aircraft, but there is still risk to other personnel sharing the airspace, not to include the cost of the aircraft and the loss of a combat enabler.
This article is not to suggest the Army implement an Air Force approach to UASs where only rated pilots are allowed to fly. It is an attempt to make UAS commanders understand the true capabilities and limitations of the young, enlisted Soldier’s airmanship and use that in conjunction with system proficiency to determine if they are truly ready for AC duties. We should never allow necessity to overrule proficiency.
Recommended Mitigation Strategies
- Integrate senior manned pilots into the UAS program to provide mentorship on aviation standards and general airmanship.
- Fly UAS operators in the jump seat of manned aircraft so they can see and hear crew coordination and interaction with ATC firsthand.
- ACs must have a clear understanding that they are a VFR aircraft and have the responsibility to disagree with ATC if they are unable to clear terrain. Take the operators to the ATC facility and show them what ATC uses to vector aircraft under “radar contact.”
- Ensure the unit AC program takes “airmanship” into consideration, as well as system proficiency. Don’t rush RL progression or aircraft commander designation.