31 January 2010

"The last fighter pilot's already been born"

Career fields change all the time. Getting into the manufacture of buggy whips in 1910 turned out to be a poor move, like training to be a travel agent is today. Careers in aviation are undergoing huge changes right now, too. Some of that is driven by technological advances, but much will be driven by other factors, like much higher fuel costs in the future.

With the upcoming career-focussed National Aviation Day at the Canada Aviation Museum scheduled for 23 February 2010, this seemed like a good time to listen to what some of the experts have to say on aviation careers.

Mike Nelson is a retired fighter pilot who now teaches aviation at the University of North Dakota, a school well-known for its aviation programs. But he isn't teaching fighter pilots at UND, he is teaching unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Nelson says: "The last fighter pilot's already been born. The last fighter is being built. And these [unmanned aircraft systems] are just getting started." Like a number of people these days he thinks the F-35 Lightning II is going to be the last manned fighter aircraft built, at least in the west. Even today in Iraq and Afghanistan many of the missions it would be doing, if it were already in squadron service, are being done by unmanned aircraft. This is only set to increase in the future until all military combat aircraft are unmanned, probably by sometime around 2030.

Why is this so inevitable? I think there are four reasons: Cost, risk, capabilities and fuel.

There is no doubt that UAS cost less to do a military mission. Even today battlefield missions, like photo recce, which would have been done by a F-18 or SR-71 in the past, are being done by UAS with cameras. It doesn't take a $60M aircraft to take really high quality photos, these can be done by UAS weighing just a few lbs, because it doesn't have to be big enough and armoured enough to carry a crew.

Risk is a big factor in combat missions. During the Vietnam War tens of thousands of American aviators were killed, including 2202 Huey pilots. Today missions in Iraq are being flown by pilots and crews sitting on the ground in the US. If their aircraft gets shot down they still drive home to a warm meal at the end of their shift. The risk to the enemy is high while the risk to your own aviators is minimal and that gives your forces a huge advantage. And, of course the fewer casualties your side suffers, the less outcry there will be on the home front, too.

Capabilities are critical advantages to the UAS as well. Many combat systems in use today, like the Predator and Reaper give more than 24 hour loiter times, meaning that the troops on the ground have constant air coverage and recce photos available. These UAS operate up high and being small and quiet are out of visual and aural detection range. Crews sitting at home in the States or even in theatre just change shifts every eight hours and the aircraft stays on station over the battle doing its job. Taking photos and video is one thing, but current systems loiter with antitank missiles ready for a target to appear, the capability is in the air now and the ground troops can have a target hit within seconds when they need that. Upcoming UAS fighters will be much smaller than any manned aircraft they are fighting and they will be able to manoeuvre at 24g or better, making the bigger and less maneuverable manned aircraft a sitting duck for them.

Fuel is going to be an increasing issue in the future, as oil prices are set to rise once again like they did in 2008. Small recce UAS are being flown today with electric engines and with their small weight can remain aloft many hours on one charge. As a bonus their electric power makes them silent, even at low altitudes and gives them zero heat signature. Even larger UAS that run on gasoline are often powered by Rotax 912s or other smaller and efficient engines that burn only a few gallons per hour. No comparison with an F-18's fuel consumption.

So for military aviation this means that a pilot will be someone who sits on the ground and manages a semi-autonomous UAS half way around the world, controlled by satellite data-link. The face of military aviation is changing and along with it the traditional fighter pilot will soon go the way of the buggy-whip manufacturer. For the military this means more combat capability at much less cost and risk, which is what they want. It also means the passing of the career of fighter pilot into history and its replacement with the less romantic and glamorous "UAS Operator".

What does all this spell for civil aviation? Probably at least two things. First off the more obvious factor is that we are going to have to give up more airspace to unmanned aircraft operations. Right now they can't see and avoid other traffic and so they operate procedurally separated from other traffic, under IFR clearances or in their own reserved airspace. Here in Canada we haven't lost much airspace to UAS operations yet, but in the US they certainly have civil flight restrictions when UAS are flying.

The second factor is a bit more subtle. I think that a lot of the younger people who get into flying do so because they are hoping for careers like airline pilot and yes, fighter pilot. Few actually go on to be fighter pilots, but it is the glamour of the fighter pilot that draws at least some of them into aviation in the first place. With that gone we will need to find a new draw to keep young people interested in getting into aviation. Telling them they can aspire to sit in an office and watch a robot airplane flying itself half way round the world is not going to inspire young people to want to learn to fly. We are going to need a new approach.