back to article USAF slammed for pranging Predators on manual

A senior Pentagon official has delivered a stinging attack on the US Air Force, saying that its philosophy of using fully qualified human pilots to handle unmanned aircraft at all times has resulted in unnecessary, expensive crashes. By contrast, US Army drones with auto-landing equipment and cheaply-trained operators have an …


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  1. Anonymous Coward


    The RAF hated the idea of the British Army getting the Apache. Truth is the Air Force are never there when you need them. Too busy handing out medals.

  2. Joe Cooper

    Space Shuttle

    Didn't they do this with the space shuttle? It was a joint NASA-USAF project originally. It has to fly with a pilot no matter what its doing, even though it wouldn't have been a quantum leap technologically to make it land completely on auto.

    The Russians did it with the Buran. The Shuttle itself actually does 99% of the landing automatically. Just not the end.

    So they don't use it to launch sats because it can't go unmanned, and risking lives on launch vehicle work is just plain silly.

    So the low flight volume means it costs somewhere north of 500 million dollars a flight because of all t he infrastructure and overhead spread among a tiny handful of flights.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    oddly enough....

    In Britains "Darkest Hour", the Sergeant Pilot rank was a kind of mutant NCO - flying as a warrant officer....The US was the same with their own equivalent ranks. They were not allowed to enjoy the services of the officers mess or officers pay. If I remember correctly this classification was removed post world war II in the UK, pilot positions being reserved for the officer classes, but has staggered on in the Army Air Corps. In the US, the army retained their program of flying NCO's and US Navy has been showing interest in reintroducing the concept.

    To say it was social class driven doesn't really do it justice.....

    Traditionally the officer pilots spend plenty of time flying desks at various times throughout their careers before being kicked upstairs eventually into command positions. Sergeant Pilots and the old Flying Officer rank however could expect to spend their entire forces career as pilots and as such could rack up tremendous seat time and experience.

  4. Dave


    Someone really needs to start thinking ahead:

    I fully appreciate that early drones are exclusively used for close-support, and therefore best kept under close control of those in the area, but in a few years time it is hard to envisage any manned aircraft remaining, and therefore drones will also be carrying out strategic missions.

    So then we will have intercept missiles flown by the RAF, cruise missiles flown from submarines, transport choppers flown by the Army Air Corp, some rusty harriers being flown by the Fleet Air Arm, close-support drones flown by the infantry, and finally strategic recce drones flown by god knows who, but probably a newly created army or even spook unit.

    Imagine what fun joint ops are going to be then!

  5. Scottie Taylor

    X-box fighterjocks?

    @Crabs: No, no no, the only people who get medals and awards in the AF are the ones who don't do anything and don't deserve them. That would include, finance, admin, plans & scheduling, services, etc. Anyone who actually works in the AF doesn't get jack. Well, at least in aircraft maintenance at any rate...

    Ahem... back to topic...

    This just goes to prove what everyone who has ever dealt with USAF flight crew has always known. They're useless, worthless and can't fly worth shit. That a 'trained monkey' could fly better than they can. And those flight crews hate that. In the AF we're expected to treat officers like lords and kings and flight crew like gods. With announcements like this it's hard to maintain that air of superiority. But as I said, most anyone who's ever worked with the morons figured that out about 3 days into the job. They're the biggest bunch of babies you could imagine, especially when it comes to trying to get them to fess up that they fucked up. At my old base, we were ordered to never fill out paperwork using certain error codes on CAMs such as "User error" or "Operator error." Not because it wasn't these things, but that it implied that our officers weren't perfect.

    Of course about 95% of the problems were in fact user error. I believe the sign-off of the month on those jobs in the 781s was something along the lines of "R2 yoke mic switch actuator." What a yoke mic switch has to do with a RADAR problem, nothing. But the thing that activates that switch...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What Ho !

    What Ho Algy old bean !

    I say, d'ya hear the Brass want to replace all the fine officers with bally peons ? !!

    As I was saying to my Batman, a fellow should know his damn place and not try to rise above it !

    Look, just think of the poor old chaps on the receiving end !

    If a chap's gonna have his family turned to bally mincemeat from some fellow five miles up that never sees him then he should be able to rest assured that it was done by an officer and a gentleman doncha know?

  7. Francis Fish

    Sergeant Pilots in WWII

    If memory serves they were treated extremely with extreme snobbery too. For example, instead of allowing them to adjust their plane's weapons as they saw fit and duplicate the setup of the most successful pilots it was assumed they couldn't hit a barn door so the machine guns were not set properly for close combat and they weren't allowed to set them differently.

    Who knows how many brave men went to their deaths, or had a much lower chance of survival, because of officer class snobbery. It upsets me when I think about it but I bet the German air force had similar problems.

  8. AndrewG
    Black Helicopters

    @joe Cooper

    Good idea..but the biggest, and one of the oldest turf wars in NASA is Manned vs Unmanned. You could say the only reason they ever built a shuttle was to give them a spacecraft a pilot could fly, and then they spent 20 years trying to come up with something to fly it to (remember space station Freedom).

    Eventually they finally got the ISS up and running becasue they overthought the whole thing so badly they couldn't justify the cost so everybody got stuck with a bloated station in a politically motivated orbit thats hard on everyone (in terms of deltaV) while they blocked any rescue of Mir which was actually a going concern in a much more useful orbit (assuming your flying Russian)

  9. Aaron

    Whiny wing-wipers

    If we ever need to fight World War III with the Soviet Union, I have no doubt they'll be invaluable. For this stuff, though, who needs a bunch of prima-donna fighter pilots?

  10. Andy Enderby

    @ Francis Fish


  11. Neil Hoskins
    Black Helicopters

    Flight Sergeants

    To expand on what others have said: contrary to the urban myth that they were all la-di-da ex-public-schoolboys, Flight Sergeants made up the majority of fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. The myth arose because of one particular propaganda film that was made at the time. The director happened to be a la-di-da ex-public-schoolboy himself and naturally gravitated towards the handful of la-di-da ex-public-schoolboys who happened to be present at the base to which he was sent. They fannied about, going "la-di-da" and speaking some childish esoteric banter; that's what people saw on the Pathé newsreels, and an urban myth was born.

  12. Rick Sykes

    Re: Space Shuttle

    I was a NASA contractor, responsible for reducing aerodynamic flight test data on the Space Shuttle Orbiter in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The Orbiter has (or had in the late 1980's) autoland capability. It was to be tested on one particular flight, I can't remember which one, but the test was cancelled within a few weeks of the flight.

    The landing gear is not designed for the loads which would be encountered in high speed flight, much less the aerothermal environment of atmospheric entry. For weight savings, there is no inflight retraction mechanism. Thus, it is exceedingly important that the gear not be extended until _just_ before landing, and that when the landing gear switch is pushed that the gear comes down quickly and locks without fail. For that reason, the landing gear switch starts a quad-redundant fault-tolerant sequence which if all else fails will use pyrotechnics to blow off the gear doors and pressurise the gear extension hydraulics. This switch is one of the only switches in the cockpit which cannot be remotely commanded. Someone in the cockpit must flip the switch guard up and press the switch, even in an otherwise automatically controlled landing.

    The Orbiter is very difficult to land. It has a very low L/D ratio and bleeds airspeed very fast. The joystick commands angular rates, not positions. This is the same way that it works onorbit (which is, after all, most of the mission), but is very alien to anyone who has flown a normal aircraft. (The simulators at Space Center Houston, the tourist area at Johnson Space Center, have a normal control system.)

    When the nose gear is on the ground, the wing has a negative incidence angle and thus creates negative lift. Once the main gear is on the ground, the pilot must hold the nose high to bleed airspeed, then quickly and smoothly lower the nose before the elevons lose effectiveness. Lower the nose too early, and the nose gear can't take the lift force, lower it too late and you won't have enough command authority to lower it gently. Due to this problem, the drag chute is not deployed until the nose gear is safely on the ground.

    On STS-3 (the third orbital flight), the astronaut in command got into a brief Pilot Induced Oscillation after he got the main gear on the ground, and nearly had a very bad day. At the time, we were still tuning control system gains, and it is extremely likely that the problem was not entirely his fault. But I don't think that he flew another mission.

    The Orbiter is very difficult to land, and would greatly benefit from using an automatic landing system. But it would take big brass ones to sit with your hands in your lap and watch it land itself for the first time, knowing all the while that if things go bad that you can't add power and go around. Thus it will probably only be tested if the pilot and commander are incapacitated. (A mission or payload specialist could press the gear switch at the appropriate time.)

  13. Michael Necaise

    Space Shuttle

    Space Shuttle can land itself. Capability was added a few years back, although it could have been done much earlier. Pilots routinely complain the automatic landing is rougher; so, most land the Shuttle manually. NASA records; however, show that the automated landings do less damage to the landing gear.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Gates fired the USAF heads

    Because they committed the mortal sin of losing track of their nuclear weapons, among other major screwups. For instance, a B-52 flew out of Minot AFB and when it landed at another base, they went "holy shit, it's full of live nukes" - that sort of thing is not supposed to be a surprise.

    Anyway, even in the USAF, fighter pilots are universally known as the most egotistical elitest stick-up-the-butt folks on the planet, and non-pilots joke about it constantly. There's a comic at on just this topic, and has even had the main fighter pilot character stuck flying Predators..

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ anonymous coward 1

    My Dad was as an RAF sergeant pilot until shortly after WWII ended. The RAF had realised a natural aptitude for flying and navigation skills were more important than coming from a "good" background. According to him as soon as the the RAF had a new intake of ex-public school officers sergeant pilots were grounded and reranked despite their experience. So I'm going with the "la-di-da" pilot theory.

  16. Vision Aforethought

    Not surprising - if you have flown a flight sim...'ll know how hard it is to land. In fact, it is harder than landing a real aircraft where you can instantly look around to confirm your barings and 'feel' the aircraft using more tactile controls.

    Even a well trained 'pilot' sitting in a room surrounded with displays cannot be as focused and on the ball. There is no risk (of death) and therefore no stress to generate the essential adrenaline required for such a focus intensive operation as landing a $$,000,000 aircraft.

  17. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Progress in Killer and Pariah Status.

    I wonder what the Geneva Convention says about some PFY operating an X-Box in one country, vapourising human assets in another on the other side of the World. Is that War or Murder in the First Degree?. It certainly aint a Sport for Heroes and Medals.

  18. MinionZero

    Oh the irony ... for all the laughing at AI, finally here comes the AI's

    Its more than a bit ironic fully trained pilots are now not as good as AI auto-pilots plus computer operators. I can see why the trained pilots are getting worried and so trying to resist, as they are heading out of a job and into the history books. Well thats one job the AI's have under their belt. Next stop, we are all out of a job and sitting happily on the beach while the robots cook us lunch.

  19. Richard Parkin

    @anonymous coward 1

    Sergeant pilots were still flying in the RAF in 1957 when I was a National Seviceman in Aden. I am fairly sure that they were all Polish.

  20. Andy Bright

    Battlefield Afghanistan

    The time for traditional military has long since passed. It would be far more efficient to just build a giant satellite network that controls fleets of amphibious, flying robot tanks. I can't see anything that could go wrong with that.

  21. Dave Morris

    @oddly enough....

    I think you'll find, upon research, that US Warrant Officers are not quite how you present them. I don't know much about UK warrant officers, but I get the impression that they are essentially senior NCOs. In the US, however, NCOs are merely a categorization of enlisted personnel; i.e. not officers at all, really, but senior enough that they have some level of authority. However, warrant officers are actually, truly, officers; in fact only the first rank of warrant officer is actually, a true warrant officer; they have a warrant from the Secretary of Defense. The other 4 warrant officer ranks all have a commission. The warrant officer category basically means that they are technical leaders and/or experts, as opposed to the commissioned officer ranks, which are more human resource leaders. Warrant officers have their own pay scale, but it is similar to the commissioned officers pay scale and they get most of the privileges accorded officers.

    In the US (as the article states) pilots (except in the USAF) are commonly warrant officers, though the majority are commissioned officers.

  22. Richard Taylor
    Thumb Down

    Evidence please - just a little would be nice

    AC1 said: My Dad was as an RAF sergeant pilot until shortly after WWII ended. The RAF had realised a natural aptitude for flying and navigation skills were more important than coming from a "good" background. According to him as soon as the the RAF had a new intake of ex-public school officers sergeant pilots were grounded and reranked despite their experience. So I'm going with the "la-di-da" pilot theory.


    Hmm - evidence from anywhere? Just a little?

  23. John Smith Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Drone crash rates so high due to humans?

    I had an impression that drone crash rates, relative to a similar number of crewed aircraft, were viewed as high. It seemed to be viewed as "Well it's just one of those things. Their drones, right." I was not aware most of the crashes occurred in the landing phase or that auto land had progressed to the point you could include it at a relatively small payload cost as a standard fitting. If that's the case there *seems* no credible reason why the *default* behaviour should not be computer controlled landing. I'm not a pilot, however.

    Crewed aircraft software is developed under an avionics software standard called (IIRC) in the US 178b. Detailed requirements analysis, rigorous testing (to a test plan), change control, regression testing (after approved changes) etc. But do these rules apply to on-board or GSE software for drones? If not then perhaps their are grounds for the wetware to handle the landings. I'm picturing some newbie CS grad. whose done a conversion course to Ada (who teaches a large 3rd gen computer language that all about killing people). But that would imply the USAF's crash rate would be even *worse* on autoland.

    I'd call for a random trial, with each landing randomly picked as manual or autoland. But to keep the results honest you'd need to run it across both services and make sure both sets of pilots were up to scratch to begin with. That should settle things for a while.

    Note Autoland (Smiths Industries c1964?) as a system of some kind has been available for some time.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I was talking with an F-16 pilot last year -- the officers who actually fly the drones are also VERY unhappy with their duties as well. They signed up to be fighter jocks, and earned their position. (Note to all the complainers -- these guys DID succeed where most others fail. They really ARE very impressive. This happens in all merit-based hierarchical orgs. And to the Brits -- class warfare has no tradition in the US.)

    Instead, they are playing Xbox with novice weapons officers. Instead of using their superior and expensive training, they are being told to work through a checklist by a training officer who knows a tenth of what the pilot knows about piloting, and grinding their teeth with frustration.

    The AF (in my humble opinion) needs to take advantage of some of the talent it has resident -- those with medical downchecks, corrected eyesight, slightly poorer reflexes, low G-resistance, etc -- and use them in this highly relevant mission. Bolsters the number of pilots without wasting the top of the line.

    And the auto-landing systems should be a no-brainer. These aren't night carrier landings, for the love of pete. It's just the sort of thing a computer can (and should) do better than an operator.

  25. asdf
    Thumb Down

    lets go back to Army Air Corps

    The biggest mistake was allowing the Air Force in the USA to form its own branch. The requisition process is so corrupt and the culture of the USAF is so broken its time to rethink its mission. The only competent leader Bush picked during his entire very long tenure was Gates as Defense Secretary (who Obama wisely kept) and he has the right ideas about how to fix the broken AF (oops looks like we were carrying nukes on our plane, glad we didn't know). Everybody in the world that could give us a decent air fight is too dependent on us economically (or vice versa) to risk doing so. Im sleep sound at night that the billions we spent on the super stealthy super techy F22 are doing so much to protect us from Habib and his AK47 and RPG in Bagdad.

  26. raving angry loony

    firing squad?

    Looks like a few generals needs to be reminded that they are in the military, and that they are there to follow orders. That they are not there to build their own private little empires just because they're too stupid to realize that technology has changed since Vietnam, which was probably the last time many of these asshats saw any action.

    Perhaps if they fired a few more the rest might get the message? Can't go wrong firing a general, especially if you do it out of an artillery piece.

  27. Orv Silver badge

    Space Shuttle

    My favorite comment about landing the space shuttle was by Robert Gibson. He noted that, because the controls reduce the wing area, pulling back results in an initial increase in sink rate. He said, "Below a certain altitude, every input you make is going to be wrong."

    Incidentally, increasing interest in drones by domestic law enforcement is raising alarm bells with general aviation pilots. There's great concern that they don't have sufficient camera resolution to "see and avoid" VFR flights, and that sooner or later one of them is going to blunder in front of a Cessna and kill someone.

  28. Nigee


    The RAF had con-commissioned pilots into the 1960s, they were the sgt pilots of WW2 vintage who had kept on flying and reached WO rank. On the other hand the Army Air Corps adopted non-commissioned pilots from the time they were formed in 1957, although their lineal predecessors in the RAF AOP sqns used only army artillery pilots who were commissioned officers. I think that today the AAC has a majority of non-com (incl WO) pilots, and some of the officer pilots are not AAC but from other parts of the army and completed a pilots course, the current head of the amry wears pilots wings and is an example.

    A few years ago parliament inquired into the whole matter, the RAF gave their reason for stop using non-com pilots as the introduction of air delivered nuclear weapons!

    Incidentally RA aren't against armed UAVs, they are heading towards a loitering munition (an expendable armed UAV) as fast as they can. It appears that for the moment they've concluded its more cost effective than arming recoverable UAVs.

  29. Anonymous Coward

    Pilots and Non-pilots

    We have a large sim that we lug around on a trailer to airshows. I often sit in the left seat talking the person in the right seat through take off, an abbreviated circuit and a landing (at an adjacent airfield).

    A lot of many 1000's hour skilled pilots cannot land it. I've had 747 drivers, microlight pilots, PPLs, etc. By the same token, I've talked many a kid and woman, who never has flown before, into a decent landing (definition: one that you would walk away from).

    Reason - the sim does not provide the feedback and cues of a real plane. The amount of power to pull the yoke in the sim is very litle, constant and does not change with airspeed. There is no feedback for the standard Mark 1 Butt that tells you what the plane is doing.

    All the cues need to be interpreted from a projected display. And that throws a lot of pilots that flown that sim.

    Remote piloting.. staring at a computer screen image and digital instruments and read-outs? You better think twice before using a well trained and very capable real pilot doing that - as flying that is *nothing* like flying the real thing from the front office.

  30. John Smith Gold badge

    @Rick Sykes

    I note that their is a difference between a crewed automatic landing and an un-crewed landing. There are IIRC about 3 things which were deliberately designed to only be done manually, because of the catastrophic consequences of them happening at the wrong time. Wheels down is one, drag chute release is another and something on the APUs is (I think) the 3rd. However quite recently a "patch cord" has been developed which can do these as well under GPC control. It's meant for emergency use only however.

    "The Orbiter is very difficult to land. It has a very low L/D ratio and bleeds airspeed very fast. The joystick commands angular rates, not positions."

    "(The simulators at Space Center Houston, the tourist area at Johnson Space Center, have a normal control system.)"

    If the simulator the pilots use is like the one the general public uses no wonder its a pig to land. I was aware pilots said they didn't like autoland because it brings the orbiter down in a way they are unfamiliar with and it was said that it it failed (there have been individual GPC failures, never the whole system) it would take them too long to get in synch with the landing. At least one thesis has been written that suggests manual handling could be improved quite a lot by changing certain constants (K-loads) in the autopilot software.

    it still amazes me that this multi-billion dollar vehicle was not actually cleared for IFR. Would adding a few instruments really have cost that much? Extending flights costs several $100k and a divert roughly a $1m.

  31. Simon B

    What's this button do? ...

    DUUUUUUUH what's this button do? ..... CRASSSHHHHHHHH!!!

  32. Trygve


    "These aren't night carrier landings, for the love of pete. It's just the sort of thing a computer can (and should) do better than an operator."

    I believe that many carrier aircraft have autoland systems that are capable of operating in hands-off mode if necessary, specifically for poor/no-vis landings. The F/A-18 has an auto-takeoff (complete with 'towel rail' for pilots to hold in order to ensure their sticky paws are off the controls). Apart from job security there's probably no reason why you couldn't set up a buttonpush for "take off, fly to mission area and then wake up pilot" and another for "play soothing music to pilot while returning to base and landing". Automating the "strafing of friendly troops, dangerous stunt flying, arrogance and habitual sexual harrasment" part of the piloting job might take another few years...

  33. Seán


    class warfare has no tradition in the US

    Yeah they just do what the rich tell them every single time.

  34. Tails

    SKYNET says..

    Let me have the stick!

    Mine's the one with the Aerial HK with the plasma turrents

  35. S Peters

    Firing of Civilian heads of Air Force

    "Gates famously sacked both the civilian and uniformed heads of the air force last year, following various clashes - including a huge row over foot-dragging by the USAF in building up its unmanned fleet."

    Not quite the story - they were fired shortly after it was discovered that a B52 was loaded with and then transported a passel of Atomic bombs...this wasn't discovered until well after the weapon were delivered and filed away as conventional weapons. The head of the Air Force group that supervises the Atomic bombs was also sacked

  36. raving angry loony


    A moose bit my sister once.

  37. heystoopid


    Or , how soon we forget as in any war once the shooting match is over bar the shouting , all the smartest best and brightest are the first and fastest out the door because they already know that all career wankers remaining above them are virtual idiots and morons the enemy through only sheer luck failed to eliminate and are normally unable to wipe their own asses without a batman assisting them when the proverbial crap hits the fan , they have better things to do with their valuable time and lives and they never intended or meant to be career military either as playing officer boot licking suck up for promotion just sucks big time .

    Or perhaps as one said of the first man to land on the moon , he crashed the computer simulator every time but pulled off the miracle when the time came , all because he was missing one little factor in his co-ordination senses , very much like all X-box jockeys working in Las Vegas .

    Need one say more ? "SNAFU"

  38. Aitor

    Virtual flying

    Virtual flying is VERY difficult.. at least it is very difficult to do coordinated turns.. you have no "included" accel indicator (senses).. and you just have a puny screen. With 3 displays (3 huge TFTs), it gets "acceptable" for non combat.. buy you would need some 12 displays for a combat plane: you need to move the head, and be able to "look around" (virtual goggles are a plus!!). Even so, you don't "feel" the plane. And when i fly, an important part is sensation: you know when you are going to lose sustentation because of the tremors.. with no small tremors, you don't know it, or can't decide the solution...

    All this is mostly unimportant on route.. but very important if you want to land... landing and taking off are the two most dangerous parts of the flight: if you lose the engines in mid-flight, it is dangerous, but you have height and can glide.. if your engine fails while taking off you are dead.

  39. Adam Williamson
    Thumb Up

    @raving angry loony

    "Perhaps if they fired a few more the rest might get the message? Can't go wrong firing a general, especially if you do it out of an artillery piece."

    Pour encourager les autres, peut-etre?

  40. Charles Manning

    Drone landing should be easy

    Drones really don't need for any pilot or XBox driver.

    GPS etc + some relatively simple software is all that is needed to land a drone. All the interface you rally need is something like Google Earth: Fly to here [click], then here[click], then land here[click]. OK[click]. The XBox mode is useful if you need to change the flight in realtime to investigate interesting things, but you can go back to auto for landing.

    $5000 of software and hardware can control a tractor to within a few inches over bumpy terrain. Controlling a plane through air is no more challenging.

    Bumpy landings are OK since there are no passengers. Techno-paranoia is also not a factor for the same reason.

  41. Clive Davison

    anonymous coward 1

    ref your post there were still RAF Master Pilots flying until well into the 60's and for sure on Gloster Javelins.

    And I also know of at least one that got fly to Lightnings and could regularly outfly the officer cadre of the day even though they were at least half his age!

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