News>Feature - Academy UAS program continues to mature
Cadet 3rd Class Kasilie Shepherd coordinates an unmanned aerial system mission in the 557th Flying Training Squadron facility at the Air Force Academy Airfield July 20, 2012. Instructor pilot cadets and permanent-party faculty create scenarios that allow students to work with classmates enrolled in the Expeditionary Survival and Evasion Training summer program, simulating operational Air Force missions. Shepherd is assigned to Cadet Squadron 35. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)
An Aerosonde remotely piloted aircraft prepares for takeoff from the Aardvark airfield east of Jacks Valley at the Air Force Academy Sept. 1, 2011. Academy cadets control the RPAs from an operations center in the 557th Flying Training Squadron at the Academy's primary airfield. (U.S. Air Force photo)
7/27/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Cadets participating in Expeditionary Survival and Evasion Training aren't alone. Throughout the day, winged guardians watch over them, protecting them from harm.
The guardians are Aerosonde Mark IV remotely piloted aircraft, operated by cadet pilots in the 557th Flying Training Squadron facility adjacent to the Academy Airfield. The setup there, with stations and monitors set up to resemble the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia, symbolizes how far the Academy's unmanned aerial system program has evolved in the three years since it started in 2009.
"In the history of the Academy, we've talked about airpower, doctrine and the strategy of how air assets work in a tactical environment," said Lt. Col. John McCurdy, who directs the summer airmanship program. "This is truly game-changer for the Academy. We're not just teaching cadets how to fly the aircraft -- the real value is bringing in the airpower component to their education."
The UAS program started in 2009 with a pair of Viking 300 aircraft and a dirt runway at Camp Red Devil on Fort Carson, Colo., and focused on flight training and familiarization. Today's UAS program goes well beyond that, said Cadet 1st Class Rusty Thomas, who has taken summer UAS courses since 2010.
"I've seen the program change a lot," said Thomas, who is assigned to Cadet Squadron 04. "The scenarios are a lot more realistic, especially working with ESET. If we'd had this my freshman year, it would have been really cool."
Over the years, both cadet instructor pilots and permanent-party staff have contributed to the program's operational feel, Thomas said. Today, cadet UAS instructor pilots work with the ESET joint operations center to support cadets in the field, relaying their taskings via an isolated, fiber-optic network to the air operations center at the airfield. There, cadets determine how best to support their on-ground classmates.
Three cadets operate each Aerosonde: one pilot, one sensor operator and one mission commander, who takes some of the duties normally carried out by the pilot in an operational environment. They communicate over channels using nine-line combat support requests and Internet relay chat, mirroring the operational Air Force environment.
Cadet 2nd Class Derek Richardson of CS 15 is also involved with the summer UAS program. The prior-enlisted Airman favorably compared the Academy's program to what he saw during his Operation Air Force visit to Beale Air Force Base, Calif., earlier this summer.
"A lot of the stuff we learn her correlates directly to how they operate the Global Hawk," he said.
McCurdy said Air Education and Training Command is scheduled to take over the program in the summer of 2014.