Springfield Guard unit in need of more drone pilots

Mission’s secrecy and newness make reruitment more difficult.

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Count on the Springfield News-Sun for coverage you won’t find anywhere else about how local Guardsmen are actively involved in the war against terrorism.

About 40 pilots fly the MQ-1 Predator on armed recon missions abroad from inside a building at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, but the local Air Guard wing has openings for 10 more.

The Air Force as a whole has embraced unmanned aerial technology so rapidly that it can’t find and train those pilots fast enough, according to a recent think tank report.

The report authored last month for the Brookings Institution by Air Force Col. Brad Hoagland suggests that “an aggressive enterprise-wide recruiting strategy and strategic communication plan is needed” for the Air Force to find the 350 new drone pilots it’ll need by 2017 to carry out projected plans.

But for an Air National Guard unit like Springfield’s 178th Fighter Wing — which historically has drawn its personnel from the local area — recruiting potential pilots has taken on new challenges during a war in which the warfighter doesn’t necessarily have to leave home.

Pilots who always made appearances at the Dayton Air Show to meet and greet potential recruits when the wing flew manned fighter jets now can’t reveal themselves in public.

The wing’s four full-time recruiters have never actually seen where the Predators are controlled from, due to the mission’s sensitivity, and aren’t likely to anytime soon unless they have the right clearance.

Crews based locally began flying the Predator last year, and play an active role in the War on Terror without ever leaving Clark County.

“It’s still too new,” said Col. Bryan Davis, commander of the wing’s 178th Reconnaissance Group and the only Predator pilot locally who can be identified.

The wing has six pilot recruits working their way through the two-year training process — tapped either from its enlisted ranks or off the street — but the need remains.

“It’s an open advertisement for people to come in and be selected,” Davis said.

The jet fighters that roared over Clark County for 55 years sold themselves, according to Col. Gregory Schnulo, commander of the 178th Fighter Wing.

“We exist because of the local population,” Schnulo said.

But never before has the 178th — the lone RPA unit in the Ohio Air National Guard — had to keep so quiet about its mission.

“You’re our best vehicle right now,” Schnulo confessed during an interview with the Springfield News-Sun, which has reported extensively on the wing’s transition from jets to drones.

Pilots of all kinds are in short supply, Davis said, whether the aircraft is manned or not, but the Brookings report argues that if the Air Force wants to up the number of daily combat air patrols as planned by remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, like the Predator, things need to change.

The Air Force currently operates 61 combat air patrols daily with drones, primarily in places such as Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa, where they watch over friendly ground forces and keep tabs on suspected militants with their sensors and cameras.

If need be, the Predator’s two Hellfire missiles can come into play.

The MQ-9 Reaper, an even more lethal RPA, carries more than double the number of Hellfires, in addition to so-called smart bombs.

In all, RPA carry out more than 500 strikes annually, according to the report — a 96 percent increase since 2009.

The Pentagon wants to up the number of combat air patrols by RPA to 65 daily by mid-2014, which might not sound dramatic, but each patrol already requires eight aircrews.

Because each RPA stays aloft for 24 hours, crews rotate in to take control. Pilots in Springfield, who saw their F-16s depart in 2010 as part of a base realignment process, often link up to a Predator already in flight.

By 2017, the Air Force wants 10 crews to operate each patrol, according to the report, which would require 1,650 pilots. Currently, the Air Force has about 1,300 RPA pilots.

Consider that the Department of Defense only had about 50 RPA operators in the late 1990s.

“There was more need than the active duty could provide. That’s how the Guard got into this,” Schnulo said.

Problems outlined in the Brookings report as barriers to producing more RPA pilots — high washout rates and a brutal workload, in particular, that leaves officers little time for professional development requirements needed for promotion in rank — don’t exist in the Guard, according to Schnulo and Davis.

Active-duty RPA crews had been working six-day weeks, with one day off, but have gone to six days on, two days off, Davis said.

In a sense — and as anyone with military service can attest — they own their people.

As civilian employees, airmen in the Guard typically only work four 10-hour days.

“There’s nothing keeping a pilot working for me,” Davis said.

“Once you get past the original commitment,” Schnulo added, “you’re serving at your pleasure. We have to make sure the quality of life is such that they want to stay.”

For that reason, the 178th has routinely attracted former active-duty pilots, and older pilots in particular.

“We’re recruiting every day,” said Davis, a former F-16 pilot. “I’m always recruiting.”

Tapping an already experienced pilot or navigator saves both time and money, he said.

To date, all 40 pilots in the 178th transferred to RPA from other types of manned aircraft, Davis said, but the unit is expected to welcome its first organic Predator pilot in the spring, when he completes training.

He’ll be the first Predator pilot locally whose flight experience is limited to RPA.

The Air Force, according to the report, should target tech-savvy Millennials in recruiting efforts, emphasizing the coming commercialization of unmanned aircraft systems.

At the same time, the report warned, the Air Force “will probably” face a retention issue once commercial UAS are cleared to fly within the next couple of years by the Federal Aviation Administration, similar to how the airline industry historically poached pilots.

Davis said his pilots and sensor operators have already fielded offers to come work in the civilian drone market, which is predicted to be an $82.1 billion industry by 2025.

Further putting pressure on local Air Guard commanders to create a good work environment, the Miami Valley has emerged as Ohio’s hub of UAS development.

“Everything we do,” Schnulo said, “is in demand in this area.”

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