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Remotely piloted aircraft training expands at Holloman

Student sensor operators from the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron practice tactical operations during an MQ-1 Predator super sortie simulator mission. Super sortie missions allow two student crews to be trained simultaneously. Student sensor operators will learn a variety of missions, including raid over watch, route clearance, target development, and close air support. Holloman is the Air Force’s premier base for Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilot and sensor operator training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman BreeAnn Sachs)

Student sensor operators from the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron practice tactical operations during an MQ-1 Predator super sortie simulator mission. Super sortie missions allow two student crews to be trained simultaneously. Student sensor operators will learn a variety of missions, including raid over watch, route clearance, target development, and close air support. Holloman is the Air Force’s premier base for Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilot and sensor operator training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman BreeAnn Sachs)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M (AFNS) -- The Air Force currently employs numerous remotely piloted aircraft in support of surveillance and reconnaissance missions throughout deployed locations, with the bulk of these missions are being placed specifically upon the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft.

The reliance on the ability for RPAs to fly long hours, and in some situations, support combat missions, has very quickly increased the demand for their use in deployed locations.

The proof of this can be seen in the expansion at Holloman Air Force Base's RPA training squadrons.

"By the time we are done with this expansion, Holloman (AFB) will be the largest aircrew training base in the Air Force," said Maj. Christopher, the assistant director of operations for programed flying training.

This expansion will increase the rate of student production from 603 pilots and sensor operator students in fiscal year 2015 up to an estimated 818 students in fiscal 2016.

The formal training unit expansion in total will take about 18 months. This includes training new instructors, expanding facilities and improving syllabi for incoming students.

"It takes about six months to create a new instructor," Christopher said. "They have to go through formal instructor upgrade training, and at about the two-month mark, they can start teaching the basics. Four months after that, when they have become a little seasoned, we let them start training in some of the more complex areas."

The expansion promises to fix manning issues within the RPA pilot and sensor operator career fields Air Force-wide. It has also put manning issues for RPA maintainers in the sights of Holloman leadership.

"When we started the process, looking at all of the limiting factors, everybody's assumption was that the amount of instructors was the biggest limiting factor," Christopher said. "However, when we started looking at it holistically, we discovered the maintenance manning was even worse than our own."

The realization of the issue for maintainers has led leadership to take the first steps into easing their workload.

There is not yet a set plan, but it is a major topic that is being addressed and will hopefully lead to a lasting fix.

"This is probably the best opportunity that has the most investment from leadership in terms of getting us healthy," Christopher said. "It is not a Band-Aid or a quick fix; this seems like leadership is truly focused on a long-term sustainable fix that is going to keep the RPA community healthy as a whole and keep us there. It is going to hurt for a little while because we have got a lot of work to do, but the demand is still there and we need to do our best to meet that."

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