by Christopher Ball 412th Test Wing Public Affairs
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Enlisted Airmen are not commonly associated with operating aircraft or systems in flight. However, that role is changing, and the developmental test world is now benefitting from enlisted sensor operators in the Global Vigilance Combined Test Force.
Three enlisted Global Hawk Sensor Operators (SOs) are now sharing their operational experience with remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) with the Global Vigilance CTF.
While there are enlisted SOs at multiple bases, these are the only ones in the developmental test world.
An RPA sensor operator controls the sensors, the cameras, installed on the aircraft.
“We work hand-in-hand with the pilot, backing him up on any issues that may arise,” said Tech. Sgt. Anthony Mares, one of the enlisted operators with the CTF. “But we’re also coordinating retasking, and working with outside agencies to make sure all the imagery we’re taking is sufficient for the end user.
Tech. Sgt. Jared Pooley added to the job description. “We also work directly with ground forces – Army, Marines – when the time arises to make sure they’re getting the intelligence they need.
Tech. St. Robert Mahoney explained retasking, saying Global Hawk SO’s are often tasked with follow-up missions to try and re-collect targets that may have been missed during a prior mission.
“It could also be to collect on targets that have been missed or un-attainable by another platform for various reasons, such as weather, lack of needed flight endurance, altitude restrictions, etc.,” he said. “Lastly, ‘retasking’ could be missions to continue surveillance on a high priority target.”
Lt. Col. Cory Naddy, director of the Global Vigilance Combined Test Force praised the enlisted operators. “In the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) world of Global Hawk, the Sensor Operators are the folks that are putting the weapon on the target. Don’t get me wrong – our pilots are critical, they deliver the aircraft to the position it needs to be in to make the shot. But, without the sensor on board (and the Sensor Operator that is running it), we could never get the ISR mission done.”
The director described a parallel between the enlisted operators and the bombardiers of World War II. “Sitting in the noses of the B-17 and B-25 … the pilot got the plane overhead, and the bombardier shacked the target,” he said. “Each is necessary for the mission to be accomplished, and together they bring airpower to bear on targets that, quite often, can’t be shot any other way. That’s a pretty huge responsibility, and a pretty awesome team to be a part of. ”
According to Maj. Jeremy Jones, assistant director of operations and RQ4 pilot with the Global Vigilance CTF, these noncommissioned officers have been beneficial to the CTF, which had one enlisted SO assigned until recently.
“They know everything about the sensor, they’re definitely experts, he said.
The major said their knowledge of the operational world helps. “Especially with block 40, He said. Here, we’re all learning how to employ it, now we have real world experience.”
According to Mares, operational aspect in a test environment was never there. “It’s finally been noticed, and we’ve brought in three SOs in the last year. We had one that had test experience, and we brought in three with operational experience.”
The CTF director added his thoughts, saying “RQ-4 developmental test has suffered from a distinct lack of operational inputs and experience from the enlisted sensor operator force. One of my goals is to change that within this CTF. Experienced enlisted SOs are absolutely critical to our mission. Two years ago, we had one — now we have three, and I want more!”
All three NCOs said they really enjoyed every aspect of their job, especially in the test environment. They all expressed admiration for the technical aspects.
Pooley added to this, saying “we control sensors on board an aircraft that can do things no other aircraft can do. Nothing can fly as high or as long.”
The SOs bragged that the Global Hawk recently set a record for flying 33 hours without refueling.
“The Global Hawk flies autonomously,” Mares said. “But the Global Hawk, or any UAV, can be flown (controlled) from any point in the world. “For Global Hawk, we fly all our operational missions from Beale Air Force Base.”
Pooley, expanded, saying “we can be in one shelter for two hours working a mission in one part of the world, then walk to another shelter and work a mission on the opposite side of the world.”
“One of the cool things for me,” Mahoney said, “is doing the job is like playing a video game and at the same time knowing that you are really saving lives and making a difference in the real world! As a gamer, how cool is that!”
In addition to their present job, the SOs were excited about the possibility of expanded opportunities for assignments for sensor operators, and more excited about the introduction of enlisted Global Hawk pilots which was announced December 17, 2015.
“Drones are the future,” Mares said. “Being on the tip of it, with test and development, it’s the coolest thing in the world right now. We’re testing out the things right now that are going to go out in the field to help out the guys on the ground.”