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Safety at center of growing RPA requirement

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Gen. Hap Arnold may have startled even his most visionary contemporaries when he said on V-J Day, "The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all. Take everything you've learned about aviation in war, throw it out of the window, and let's go to work on tomorrow's aviation."

No one then could have imagined that Arnold's prophecy would be realized just a couple of decades later when unmanned aircraft were used for tactical reconnaissance during the Vietnam War.

Today, remotely piloted aircraft provide combatant commanders the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data that's needed in real time to successfully target the enemy and provide strike support for troops on the ground. "Insatiable" is often used to best describe combatant commanders' need for those capabilities. That need was shared by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he directed in 2010 that combat air patrols increase to 65 by the end of fiscal 2013 to support an enduring requirement beyond the conflicts in Southwest Asia.

Hand in hand with the expanding requirements for the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, and the need for the production of more RPA pilots and sensor operators, is the increasing focus on operational safety of more than the current inventory of about 250 Global Hawks, Predators and Reapers - a number that's expected to grow with the acquisition of nearly 400 Reapers over the next few years.

In spite of a dramatic increase in the number of RPA flying hours, the mishap rates are improving, said Lt. Col. Maggie Howard, RPA Safety Branch chief.

"The MQ-1 was the second most flown airframe last year; second only to the C-17," Howard said. "Between fiscal year 2007 and 2011, its flying hours increased from approximately 79,000 to 239,000 - a 200 percent increase."

The MQ-1 had 78 Class A mishaps between 1994, when it was assigned to the Air Force, and October 2010, and 19 since. From 1994 to October 2010, Class A mishaps were defined as those resulting in damage equal to or greater than $1 million or a destroyed aircraft. Beginning with fiscal year 2010, the cost threshold for Class A's went to $2 million.

The mishap rate has decreased due to fine-tuned pilot training and the implementation of airframe design changes, said Greg Grigson, operations research analyst. Those efforts resulted in a mishap rate per 100,000 flight hours that approaches that of the F-16.

"The MQ-9 and RQ-4, on the other hand, are more advanced RPA designs which include redundant systems similar to manned aircraft and have cumulative mishap rates that are currently lower than the F-16," Grigson said.

In fiscal 2011, the Air Force had 13 RPA Class A flight mishaps for a rate of 3.83 per 100,000 flight hours.

"As with other Air Force airframes, Air Force RPA safety rates are improving over time due to design and system re-engineering," said Dr. Ken Pascoe, systems safety engineer. "This is the same life cycle we've seen in all Air Force aircraft."

"The Air Force applies the same standard of safety with the same rigor and focus to RPAs as we do with any other aircraft in our inventory," Howard said. "Our goal is to preserve combat capabilities by identifying hazards and reducing risk."

In that capacity, the branch provides support for mishap investigation boards with technical guidance and reviews of findings. Thorough and logical reviews of the mishap reports are critical to ensuring the right cause is identified and, more importantly, can be prevented.

"Throughout a review, we ask a series of questions to determine the root cause of the failure." said Tina Huynh, RPA systems safety engineer. The key part of a mishap report is having the right information that can prevent another mishap, she said.

One of the branch's roles in mishap prevention is supporting the Department of Defense and Air Force focus on achieving national airspace (NAS) integration for RPA operations by 2015, which runs parallel to the Congressional goal.

The branch is leading the safety analysis effort for the Air Force Ground-Based Sense and Avoid safety case for NAS integration at Cannon AFB, N.M., and works actively with Headquarters Air Force, DOD and other government and non-government agencies to build the safety case. Cannon-based RPAs will then be able to use nearby training ranges more easily. According to Huynh, this proof of concept, once approved by DOD and the Federal Aviation Administration , can be used to establish similar RPA operating procedures at other stateside bases and throughout the NAS.

"The FAA requires anyone operating an aircraft to be able to see and avoid other aircraft," said David LaLone, RPA pilot subject matter expert. "Since RPA pilots cannot see, they must rely on alternate means to accomplish this, either ground-based radar or observers, to get a picture of what is in the sky around them. Currently, the Air Force must have a certificate of authorization (COA) for RPA operations within the NAS." COAs are currently used to operate RPAs between restricted areas through the NAS, primarily for training.

"Achieving RPA NAS integration means we'll complete safety studies and risk management assessments to reach the same level of mishap risk that is acceptable for manned aircraft of the same type and size," LaLone said. "All RPA operations must meet the same level of safety as that applied to manned aircraft."