Organizational Culture and Drones

I really didn’t want to knock on the US Air Force…they’ve had a bad week.  First, we re-visited the unfortunate incident in which a C-17, bound for MacDill AFB, accidentally landed on a much smaller runway 4 1/2 miles away.

Bonus: With General Mattis aboard.

Then there were the results of the Great Porn Hunt of 2013, in which Air Force officials documented 27,000 “inappropriate or offensive items” in the work areas of airmen.  And that’s not even counting the nose art in the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB.

cute girl with american bomber nose art

In the Air Force’s defense, anything that happened in the Army Air Corps doesn’t count…

And if that weren’t bad enough, it seems the Air Force’s leadership might want to address the, erm, hobbies of some of their airmen.

So perhaps the Air Force thought it could score a good public affairs coup by allowing PBS to interview a few Predator operators at Holloman AFB, NM for its Nova special, “Rise of the Drones“.

Meet Captain Chad.  Not a Predator operator, mind you, but a Predator pilot.  See the flight suit?

Captain Chad

For security purposes, we need to protect the identities of our Predator pilots in case they’re shot down behind enemy lines…or something.  Or because terrorists are everywhere.  Well, maybe not terrorists.  But you have to admit those asshats from Code Pink do get kind of annoying at times.

At any rate, in keeping with proud Air Force traditions, we’re still going to paint the full names of both pilots on the sides of the aircraft.  I hope insurgents don’t think peel off that 100 mph tape.

Names on the side of the Predator 2

Still, Predator pilots work in the shadows.  We’d hate for their identities to be exposed.  Unlike their manned aircraft brethren, identified by name in the same Nova special.

Full name

Hey, manned aviators are people, too.

Culture plays a profound role in any organization, and nowhere is that more evident in the way in which the US Air Force and the US Army treat their pilots. Operators. Whatever.

The US Army’s MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAV is largely derived from its older brother, the MQ-1 Predator, in use by both the US Air Force and the CIA.  Both are similar in performance, armament, and capabilities.  Yet we see a massive difference in personnel selection, training programs, and even benefits afforded to the aircrews.

The Air Force refers to its personnel as pilots, almost always commissioned officers.  Thanks to satellite links, pilots can operate the aircraft from anywhere in the world–as such, Air Force pilots rarely deploy outside the United States.  The Ground Control Station features a “stick and rudder” design like that of an airplane.

Contrast this with operators in the Army, almost always enlisted soldiers or warrant officers.  Invariably, Army operators must deploy with their airframes, despite the fact that satellite links allow the aircraft to be operated from any location.  And a Universal Control Station allows operators to fly the aircraft with a trackball to select altitudes, airspeed and routes.  And landings?  Automatic.

As technology matures, it will be interesting to see how each of the services trains, selects, and treats their UAV operators.

About Starbuck

"Starbuck" is the online moniker of Major Crispin Burke, a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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