As unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) become an increasingly key factor in military operations, the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) is preparing for that future by revamping its current UAS instruction while adding a two-week advanced course for new graduates slated to be unmanned test pilots.
Beginning with Class 155 in July, the school expanded its introductory UAS topics taught in the classroom and restructured its intermediate teachings—wherein students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to actual unmanned flights—to take further advantage of the convenience and flexibility of an onsite flight simulator, USNTPS Commanding Officer Cmdr. Glenn Rioux said.
Previously, students would head to Naval Outlying Field Webster in St. Inigoes, Maryland—roughly a 15-mile drive from the school’s location at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland—to fly two UAS events. Now one of those events is conducted using the simulator, which reduces both time spent transiting to Webster Field and flight cancellations due to weather, Rioux said.
“Using the UAS simulator also lets our aircrews operate the air vehicles to the full limits of the hardware. We have many more limitations placed on the operators when flying out of Webster Field,” he said. Next summer, after Class 155 graduates, the school will begin offering a two-week, post-graduate course focused on personnel headed to a UAS developmental test program or Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (UX) 24, which commissioned Oct. 18 as the Navy’s first dedicated UAS test squadron.
The school currently offers three distinct 11-month curricula—fixed-wing, rotary-wing and systems—with its introductory and intermediate UAS teachings incorporated at the same level across those three tracks. Because all USNTPS students to date have been pilots and naval flight officers trained to operate traditional manned aircraft, creating a dedicated UAS curriculum could come with undesirable consequences.
“If we sent someone whose job it is to fly manned aircraft through that 11-month time period without flying manned aircraft, then that skill set would atrophy and require significant time and resources to regain qualification,” Rioux said.
Plus, because operating UAS often requires incorporating them into the airspace alongside manned aircraft, a background in manned aircraft and understanding of how they operate is considered key for UAS test pilots.
“In offering that focused, postgraduate unmanned short course, we can take someone with the baseline knowledge of a TPS graduate, whom we taught the mindset, risk management and communication that goes along with the whole flight test business, and have them apply it to this focused area of unmanned systems,” Rioux said. “So everyone will get the introductory topics, everyone will get the intermediate topics, but those who are going specifically to test unmanned systems will get these advanced topics. And that’s never been done before at TPS, or any of the other test pilot schools.”
There is no plan within the next two years to create a dedicated UAS track at the school, but if the Navy decides to create a distinct career track for UAS pilots, as the Marine Corps and Air Force already have, “where pilots’ whole jobs are flying unmanned systems and they never earn a manned aircraft qualification, that’s probably the point where we should have established a separate unmanned systems curriculum,” Rioux said.
Another sign of the steady shift to UAS aviation occurred at USNTPS in January, when the school enrolled its first UAS-exclusive pilot, a Marine, in a full 11-month course, said Lt. Col. Rory Feely, the school’s executive officer.
“Now that UAS have reached such a significant momentum within our DoD space, I think all the professionals in the building here would say we need to increase our UAS curriculum content,” Feely said. “Both academic background and applied flight test, if we’re actually going to grow these systems to deliver the capability the fleet needs, TPS is the right place, with the right staff and right resources, to prepare UAS developmental testers.”
Jeff Newman is a staff writer for Naval Aviation News.