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RPAs meet mission goals safe and on time

Staff Sgt. Trung reports a munitions load to the munitions operations center May 12, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The 432nd Maintenance Group ensures that Airmen, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, ground control stations, Predator Primary Satellite Links, and a globally-integrated communications network are fully capable to support aircrew training, combat operations, operational test and evaluation, and natural disaster support. Trung is a 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew chief. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. C.R.)

Staff Sgt. Trung reports a munitions load to the munitions operations center May 12, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The 432nd Maintenance Group ensures that Airmen, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, ground control stations, Predator Primary Satellite Links, and a globally-integrated communications network are fully capable to support aircrew training, combat operations, operational test and evaluation, and natural disaster support. Trung is a 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew chief. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. C.R.)

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. (AFNS) -- Airmen stationed in the continental U.S. and in deployed locations throughout the world drew on decades of Air Force aviation experience to achieve 65 simultaneous remotely piloted combat air patrols last month.

Air Force Airmen have logged more than two million hours flying remotely-piloted aircraft. Data now shows that RPAs are operating more safely than general aviation aircraft, according to a study by the National Transportation Safety Board. General aviation is defined as all non-commercial flights. It accounts for 51 percent of total hours flown over the U.S.

Col. James A. Marshall, the former director of safety for Headquarters Air Combat Command, said that while his directorate is "never satisfied until the mishap rate is down to zero," he is pleased with the progress that has been made in the area of remotely-piloted aircraft.

With a mishap rate of 3.23 losses per 100,000 hours flown, the MQ-1B Predator, RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft mishap rates are a fraction of accident rates in general aviation aircraft. The NTSB's most recent review of general aviation found an mishap rate of more than 12 per 100,000 hours flown.

"I would rather have our RPAs flying over my house than general aviation," said Marshall, a former U-2S command pilot who has been involved in ACC aircraft safety for the better part of a decade, when the RPA program was growing.

Safe operations are essential for successful combat missions. The first remotely-piloted aircraft to see combat operations, the MQ-1B, helped the Air Force establish safe procedures which have been applied to other remotely-piloted platforms.

As the technology advances, the first generation Predator is being phased out in favor of the MQ-9. The advancements in the Reaper include more robust and capable aircraft performance along with greater redundancies in the aircraft to enhance its safety of flight.

"Over time we have learned somethings in safety for RPAs that will translate not only for the military aviation but also civilian (aviation)," Marshall said. "Our mishap rates have steadily gone down due to continuous process improvement."

Air Force aviation culture is grounded in a strong safety sense and the idea of continuous improvement. This combination has enabled adjustments to training curriculum, upgrades to equipment and changes to flight procedures, while still performing daily missions during more than a decade of combat operations.

"When we have a mishap, we do an investigation and the results go through a safety board,” Marshall said, “consisting of aviation experts, pilots, maintainers and outside subject matter experts, who provide alternative perspectives. From there, the safety board makes recommendations on how to prevent future mishaps. We find out what caused the crash, and in turn, the necessary changes are made to eliminate the reasons for the crash."

RPAs are not only safe compared to general aviation civilian aircraft, but their safety records stand up to some of the Air Force's most reliable current platforms, Marshall said.

Fourth-generation combat aircraft and long-duration reconnaissance platforms saw similar or higher mishap rates during the equivalent time-frame of their development and use. Because the MQ-1, RQ-4 and MQ-9 are the first combat and surveillance aircraft of their time, comparisons to other aircraft in the fleet is difficult. The RPAs have gone through similar testing, fielding and operational experiences as the Air Force's early fourth-generation manned-fighter aircraft, giving the Air Force an approximation window into assessing safety trends over more than ten years of continuous combat operations.

The early mishap rate for F-16 Fighting Falcons spiked at 3.68 per 100,000 hours flown. The F-15 Eagle and Strike Eagle models saw 1.26 mishaps. Their combined mishap rates are generally comparable to the current MQ-9 rate of 1.93. The U-2S's five year mishap rate is zero, equal to the rate for RQ-4s with a comparable number of total flying hours.

RPAs are among the most mission capable aircraft in the inventory. When called on, MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircraft are able to fly and execute mission requirements more often than almost all manned aircraft in the Air Force fleet. The 432nd Maintenance Group at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, has exceeded ACC's standard for keeping RPAs mission capable for the eighth year in a row.

ACC's standard mission completion rate for RPAs is 86 percent. The Predator achieved a 95.4 percent mission completion rate and the Reaper a 90.4 percent rate from April 2013 to April 2014.

Maj. Guy Perrow, the Multi-Role Reconnaissance Operations deputy for ACC, acknowledges RPA technology introduces specific technical challenges into flight operations, despite similarities in mission and flight. He said the challenges are present in all RPA flights, but continental U.S. operations are subject to stricter regulations than general civilian aviation, ensuring the latest advances in military aircraft exceed domestic safety standards.

"It's important to remember that RPA operations over the United States are confined to official training areas," Perrow said. "Civilian aircraft are more numerous and log many times more flight hours over larger portions of the country."

Based on federal laws, RPAs must adhere to the same Federal Aviation Administration flight path regulations as civilian aircraft. As U.S. combat operations wind down around the world, it is unlikely the U.S. will see a marked increase in stateside military RPAs flying in commercial airspace.

"We don't currently anticipate a significant increase in RPAs flying over the U.S. following the drawdown in Afghanistan," Perrow said. "Flights will continue to be carried out in DOD air space, or over designated military-use corridors."

(Data was obtained using online aviation statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration and AF Safety Center. Benjamin Newell contributed to this report.)

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