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Growing to Meet Current and Future AF RPA Training Demands

By Randy Martin | 12th Flying Trianing Wing | October 18, 2017

Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph -- JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- Earlier this month the 558th Flying Training Squadron took delivery of its sixteenth and final new flight simulator from the 502nd Air Base Wing’s Trainer Development Squadron. It is the latest component of a veritable and growing undergraduate pilot training machine.

“There aren’t many growth industries in the Air Force these days but remotely piloted aircraft certainly is one,” said Lt. Col. Jason Thompson, the 558th FTS commander.

In eight years the RPA training program matured from a detachment to a full squadron and it is still growing.

“In February of 2015, the Secretary of the Air Force asked us to double production from 192 pilots per fiscal year and with these simulators and the efforts of great men and women from two squadrons we’re there,” said Thompson.

“Remotely piloted aircraft and associated intelligence operations are and will remain a vital component for the national security of the United States and our allies,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldstein in a January, 2017 press release.

RPA and technical experts in the 558th, 502nd ABW TDS and Air Education and Training Command collaborated to meet Air Force requirements. “A lot of folks had to step outside of their traditional jobs in order to get here,” said Thompson.

Military and civilian instructor pilots turned into planners and designed a remodeled schoolhouse to accommodate more students. Leaders added civilian and military faculty. Technicians incorporated evolving software and hardware.

“We couldn’t do this without the TDS,” said Thompson. “The TDS worked with several contractors to design, test, accept, deliver and maintain these simulators because, just like traditional aircraft, pilots break them all the time,” Thompson said.

In 2017 alone, nearly 600 pilot and sensor operator students accumulated 16,248 hours on their simulators. That is an increase from 330 students and 6,805 hours in 2015.

In fiscal year 2016 the squadron graduated 277 pilots on its way to 338 in FY17 and Thompson expects the 558th to reach its maximum capacity of 384 in FY 18. “That’s more undergraduate pilots by one squadron than some traditional flying training wings produce in a year,” said Thompson.

There were other positive outcomes.

By all accounts the 558th successfully delivered the Air Force’s first enlisted pilots in decades. It added Predator Reaper Integrated Mission Environment simulators so that more of the school’s enlisted sensor operators and their counterparts in the pilot pipeline can train together in a realistic environment all while designing, testing, and accepting upgraded simulator controllers.

It also collaborated with the Community College of the Air Force to ensure that all enlisted student pilots receive academic training credit for their time at the school. That is particularly important to an enlisted pilot’s career and records, Thompson said.

“We know that the Air Force is looking at further expansion of the RPA force,” said Thompson.

In January, the Air Force announced that Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina is the preferred location to base a new MQ-9 Reaper group. The Air Force is also considering another location to host an MQ-9 wing.

“Time will tell when we will add another undergraduate training squadron to meet the future demand for combat RPA aviators,” Thompson said.
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