How we found out it's not so easy to fly a Reaper drone

The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are the two main drones in the United States arsenal. Both have become known as the bane of terrorists’ existence.

Well, okay, more accurately they are the means by which terrorists meet the end of their existence.

So, what’s it like to fly one of these? WATM got the chance to try at the 2017 AirSpaceCyber expo held at National Harbor, Maryland, and the experience was eye-opening. We took the controls of an  MQ-9 Reaper simulator, and it proved more difficult than we imagined.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nev., June 25, 2015. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Not Reviewed)

The controls at the simulator in the General Atomics booth were surprisingly responsive. It took a little getting used to, we were able to make turns reasonably well. The landing was a slightly different story. In fact, we’re confident that the only folks who would properly appreciate his landing have the call signs “Trip” and “Snooze.”

The recommended landing speed was between 100 and 115 knots. Our landing speed was somewhere between 150 and 155 knots. At that point, there was really only one thing to do: Play “Predator Eulogy.”

It’s a good thing that this was a simulator, because if it’d been for real, then a $64 million system would be back in the maintenance shop. Instead, the plane took back off, went back on autopilot, and a different expo attendee went there.

So, what does it take to learn to fly the Reaper, for real? WATM asked Air Education and Training Command, and here’s what we found out. According to Capt. Kaylee Ausburn, a public affairs officer with the 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the entire time to train a MQ-9 pilot is one year from start to finish. This includes two months at Pueblo, Colorado, during which they fly the Diamond DA-20 Katana.

A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

After five months of academic training and flying in a T-6 simulator, prospective Reaper pilots get five months of MQ-9-specific training involving at least 32 flight hours. Pilots do not even learn to land until well after graduating, once they have reached 500 flight hours.

So, surprisingly, it takes a lot of learning to fly – or land – a Reaper.

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