WASHINGTON, D.C. — Public interest in remotely piloted aircraft continues to grow thanks to increasing nonmilitary uses and portrayal in popular culture. For the Air Force, remotely piloted aircraft are and will continue to be a vital mission set delivering vital airpower to combatant commanders throughout the world.
Although the demands placed upon the Airmen charged with this mission are becoming better known, there are still myths strongly associated with this mission. Here’s some “fact and fiction” about the very in-demand world of RPA operations.
Myth: Because they are unmanned, RPAs are less safe than manned aircraft
Fact: For every RPA, there is a pilot with a crew in continuous control of the aircraft, ensuring not only operational precision but complete ground and flying safety. Air Force RPAs have safety rates comparable to our manned aircraft. RPA systems have been getting safer as aircraft and communication technology and the institutional experience of operators mature. Historically, even during periods when there was an immediate requirement for extensive RPA operations in demanding operational environments, the mishap rate decreased over the long term.
Myth: There is no demand from combatant commanders for RPA capability
Fact: Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions continue to be the number one most requested capability of combatant commanders at multiple locations throughout the world. RPAs are in demand and Air Force RPAs operate on a 24/7 basis.
Through December 2014, the Air Force has flown MQ-1B Predators and MQ-9 Reapers more than 2,208,985 hours (RQ-4 Global Hawk/MQ-1 equals 1,661,887 hours and MQ-9 equals 547,978).
Myth: RPAs do not have to comply with Federal Aviation Administration requirements
Fact: RPA training flights within the U.S. are conducted under federal authorities granted to the service to train pilots and crew members preparing for real-world missions. This includes all Air Force pilots being trained to FAA instrument rating requirements. These missions are flown in accordance with federal law, executive orders, and Defense Department and Air Force instructions that balance the need for operational readiness with protection of personal privacy. Unmanned aircraft that operate within the national airspace system are held to the same level of procedures and compliance, or higher, than manned aircraft.
Myth: To achieve the RPA mission, it only requires a crew of two – pilot and sensor operator
Fact: For every RPA combat air patrol, there are nearly 200 people supporting the mission in various capacities. This includes mission intelligence personnel; aircraft and communications maintainers; launch and recovery element personnel; and intelligence personnel conducting production, exploitation, and dissemination operations.
Myth: RPAs only conduct ISR
Fact: MQ-1Bs and MQ-9s are multirole aircraft capable of conducting several mission sets beyond ISR. They perform numerous additional tasks to include support to combat search and rescue, dynamic targeting, close air support, air interdiction, and strike coordination and reconnaissance. The Predator and Reaper are unique, as they also provide precision-strike missions against carefully chosen targets, minimizing risk of collateral damage.
Myth: Conducting an RPA mission is like playing a video game
Fact: New pilots of RPAs undertake a very intense training program before they fly operational missions, making it the furthest thing from picking up a controller and playing a video game. This training curriculum lasts approximately one year, and many current Air Force RPA pilots and trainers have already completed undergraduate pilot training in manned aircraft as well.