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RPA training evolves with growing demand

As demand for military missions requiring remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs) grows, so does the need for trained pilots to fly them.

The United States Air Force (USAF) has heavily invested in the use of RPAs and the pilots who fly them. RPAs, like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, are vital in crucial military operations including gathering intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and conducting close-air support.

The benefits they provide make them an invaluable resource for missions that may not be suitable for a manned aircraft to be utilized. RPAs have some important advantages over using manned aircraft on the battlefield such as providing persistent attack and flying over the battlefield for longer periods of time than traditional airframes. The advanced technological capabilities of RPA allow for a level of precision in combat that has never been seen before.

The increased reliance on these specialized aircraft has created a shortage of RPA pilots for the Air Force.

“Over the last 10 years, I’d say the biggest change in the RPA career field has been the demand. With combat operations going on around the world, commanders in combat have a huge demand for the surveillance capabilities, the intelligence that we provide, and the strike and the kinetic options that we provide with weapons in battlefield,” according to an RPA pilot at Holloman Air Force Base in Mexico (USAF, YouTube, 2017).

Remotely piloted aircrafts are not really unmanned. It takes a trained aircrew on the ground to operate and deliver combat capabilities. Becoming an RPA pilot is not only a huge opportunity for somebody entering the Air Force, but this is the way the Air Force is going. It’s laying the groundwork for the future of aviation. It’s a very exciting time to be in the RPA world (USAF, YouTube, 2017).

Current RPA Training

Intensive RPA training is a necessity to prepare a pilot for the successful completion of a mission’s objective. RPA pilots must be able to process data from the multiple surveillance and radar systems, maneuver the aircraft based on that data, and communicate effectively with the rest of the aircrew. Pilots must be put through rigorous training that simulates the intense, stressful environment that RPA pilots experience to bring out and correct mistakes before they are ready to take part in a military operation.

Currently, the USAF has four RPA pilot training courses. First, students spend two months in Initial Flight Training learning to solo the DA-20 and aviation basics. Students then move on to an RPA Instrument Qualification (RIQ) course where they are introduced to rules and restrictions that govern the skies. Also, during this phase, students train on a simulator for about two hours every day to develop and fine-tune the ability to fly using instruments. The third phase of training is called the RPA Fundamentals Course, an academic course, where they fly a simulator to get used to building operational missions and controlling an RPA. After completing the RPA Instrument Qualification and Fundamental Courses, students proceed to a formal training unit (FTU) to complete their training on the specific aircraft they will use to fly real military operations such as the MQ-9 or RQ-4.

RPA Training Next Initiative

The Air Force is looking to change RPA training to create a quicker, smoother pipeline of new RPA pilots to fill the growing demand in the field. The Air Force’s RPA Training Next (RTN) initiative is a program directed at improving the education and training process for RPA pilots. It focuses on understanding how Airmen learn, as well as exploring a flying training environment that integrates various technologies to produce pilots in an accelerated- and learning-focused manner.

Maj. Adam Smith, RPA Training Next director said, “Technology is changing the way we live and learn and it has opened up many opportunities to improve training so we can develop the Airmen we need. Our program is a Learning Next initiative aimed at helping us examine how the command has historically trained Airmen, then explores alternatives to potentially modernize training practices (Hawkins & Smith, 2020.)”

RTN combines two undergraduate courses (the RIQ and fundamentals) into one, the RPA Course (RPAC). The goal of RPAC is to create a competency-based training concept where instruction is driven by the student’s capabilities and instructional needs. Instead of the entire class moving through the course together, some students may transition through the pipeline quicker and others may stay longer if needed to adequately develop their skills.

“RPAC is a missionized course, which means there are more defined reasons for why students are accomplishing certain training objectives,” Smith said. “Students are not just flying a teardrop hold as the FAA might ask them to do, but there is a reason why they are holding – it’s to talk to a joint terminal attack controller on the ground, or to avoid a threat, or wait to get clearance (Hawkins & Smith, 2020.)” The objective is to introduce students to these types of mission elements earlier in their training, giving the students a basic understanding of the concepts before going on to their Formal Training Unit. The idea is that if the students have more knowledge and skills when they get to their formal training unit, students will be prepared and have more time for training on higher-level skills.

RPA Sensor Operators

RTN is also changing the instruction process for other RPA aircrew members too. Sensor operators work with the RPA pilot to continually monitor surveillance and weapon systems, as well as detect the correct targets using radar and video.

To give the pilot and sensor operators more time to work together during RPAC, “We attached a targeting pod on the bottom on the T-6 simulator to allow us to have the sensor operator participate in the training, which has been a game-changer,” Smith said. “In our past training construct, the sensor operator only had about four days of training with their pilot in the undergraduate phase, which means when they have arrived at the formal training unit, we have had to spend extra time to show them how to work together as an aircrew (Hawkins & Smith, 2020.)”

This additional experience gives sensor operators four weeks of exposure to crew resource management skills before moving on to the formal training unit phase. That is considerably more than the just four days of exposure sensor operators traditionally have experience.

Other Changes

A key element for a seamless transition in the RPA Training Next initiative is creating a baseline of technology that continues across all phases of training. RPA students will use the same technology while in undergraduate and formal training, creating an easier transition between each phase of training. An example of this is the modifications made to the T-6 simulators that display large amounts of data that RPA pilots need to be able to watch, process, and use to communicate such as moving map displays and chat functions. Students will experience the same level of technology in RPAC, their formal training unit, and eventually in the field. With the various mission sets pilots will be on multiple computers flying an aircraft and managing the aircrew. Things can be very dynamic so you have to be able to react on the fly and make solid decisions (USAF, YouTube, 2017). RPA pilots must be decisive and able to manage a lot going on at once and that takes time and practice to become efficient.

Maintaining the same level of technology into each phase also applies to new technological abilities such as artificial intelligence (AI). The revamped course incorporates AI capabilities to build trust in AI principals early that can be used throughout a pilot’s career.

“We are making changes to the AI in regards to how we train RPA pilots and sensor operators and then we will take the same AI software and embed that in with the MQ-9 Reaper simulator at the FTU,” Smith said. “The plan, once proven, is to export that software to the combat squadrons so they have access to the same AI instruction and other AI instructor aids in their simulators for continuation and mission qualification training (Hawkins & Smith, 2020.)”

Changes to the RPA pilot and sensor operator training course, also include the use of virtual or augmented reality.

As technology continues to develop and change, so do the skills required to competently operate the technological advances. The Air Force is endeavoring to utilize emerging technology to make RPA pilot training faster while at the same time, fostering a deeper level of learning. Any technological changes in training require modifications to the training simulators. As an aerospace and defense industry leader, DRG is proud to support the Air Force by providing visual system services, simulator updates, maintenance support, and simulator device relocation. We also supply the Air Force with experienced instructor pilots and instructional material for developing capable pilots. RPA pilots and sensor operators are an integral part of U.S. air defense. RPA pilots and sensor operators are in high demand, and there is no foreseeable reason why this demand will lessen any time soon.


Hawkins, D., & Smith, A. (2020, June 2). The Air Force Starts Here – Ep 30 – RPA Training Next. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (dvids). Retrieved March 29, 2023, from

Force, U. A. (2017, November 1). YouTube. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from

Force, U. A. (2017, November 29). YouTube. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from



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