Unmanned aircraft may be future of aviation

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By JIM MANN/The Daily Inter Lake

Chris Hetrick, an Air Force major who graduated from Flathead High School, says unmanned aircraft are the future of aviation but integrating them with piloted aircraft will be a challenge.

Representing the First Reconnaissance Squadron out of Beale Air Force Base in northern California, Hetrick gave a presentation on the Air Force’s growing use of unmanned aircraft to the Flathead Pachyderm Club on Friday in Kalispell.

“I think it’s coming. I honestly believe this is the future of aviation,” said Hetrick, who has been associated primarily with the Global Hawk, one of the largest unmanned aircraft. With a 130-foot wingspan and weighing 3,200 pounds, the Global Hawk flies above 60,000 feet and is used for reconnaissance.

Hetrick, a 1998 Flathead graduate, said unmanned military aircraft are operated by simple keystroke commands, but they make use of extremely sophisticated communications and satellite networks.

People often have the misperception that unmanned aircraft are flown with remote joysticks and foot pedals and that they require operators with pilot training.

“We’re talking a keyboard and a mouse,” he said, adding that the aircraft pretty much fly themselves to commanded altitudes and waypoints with their operators “monitoring” them. Although the aircraft and operating systems are first generation, they are “incredibly reliable and incredibly predictable,” more so than aircraft with pilots, Hetrick said.

When the Air Force got into unmanned aircraft less than a decade ago, initial operators were pilots such as Hetrick, who flew the C-17A Globe Master III transport plane in Iraq and Afghanistan after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2002.

But the Air Force has since determined that relying on expensively trained pilots to  become unmanned aircraft operators is unsustainable, Hetrick said.

Because pilots aren’t necessary, Hetrick said, “it’s opened up a broad range of potential operators,” including disabled people who would not be able to qualify as pilots.

Within a year, the Air Force will have more unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft, Hetrick said, explaining that a driving force behind the shift has been cost efficiency.

“The biggest cost savings come from not having a pilot on that aircraft,” Hetrick said, adding that one person can monitor multiple unmanned aircraft and with technology developments, one person could monitor many more aircraft. “That’s a huge cost savings.”

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