What’s It Like to Fly a Global Hawk A First Person Account of Large UAS Operations

by Chris Huebner, FAA Aviation Safety Inspector

Back when I was a P-3 Orion pilot flying for the U.S. Navy, I often wondered what it would be like to have a reliable autopilot and Selective Calling System (SELCAL) on oceanic crossings, instead of hand-jamming the yoke for hours while straining to hear ARINC through the squeals of the HF radios. Flying naval aircraft that lacked several technological capabilities most commercial aircraft have enjoyed for decades, I would often hear the phrase — “we fly yesterday’s technology into tomorrow,” or, “the P-8 is coming, and it will have all of that fancy stuff.”

Years later while working for the FAA, I often thought about my Navy days and wondered if I missed my opportunity to use cutting edge technology in naval aviation. Then, in November of 2014, I received a recall to active Navy duty. My orders stated that I would be trained and qualified as an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Mission Commander (MC) flying the Navy’s inventory of RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aircraft (UA) in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Although the Global Hawk, often regarded as an Air Force hand-me-down, maintained the running joke that “the Air Force gets the best stuff,” I viewed the recall as an exciting opportunity to have a glimpse into “tomorrow’s technology.” I wanted to learn as much information and detail about UAS operations as I could, like all aviators who strive to continuously improve, in hopes of using that knowledge upon my return to the FAA.

It was an eye-opening experience, and I’d like to “chair fly” with you as I share a few of my lessons learned and takeaways from this unique experience. I believe that the risk-based approach and best practices that I am about to describe are scalable and applicable to both part 107 remote pilots and hobbyists, since a Global Hawk is a large UAS.

U.S. Navy photo by Kelly Schindler

One word of caution: since I am a naval aviator at heart, be forewarned: many acronyms lie ahead!

A Foundation of Trust

Pilots learn from early training that the principles of “trust, but verify” are necessary in aviation. The Global Hawk is a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) aircraft that operates Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). Sophisticated data links must be used for its command and control (C2). I was skeptical at first about UAS and the level of reliance entrusted to technology and automation. It was not a quick or easy transition for me to relinquish some control to the systems that I had to trust, but could not always verify.

Over 100 missions later (the majority of which were not in the National Airspace System), I am now a true believer in UAS technology. Let me explain how I got to this point.

UAS are amazing assets with capabilities that are often unmatched by manned aircraft. However, they come with their share of unique challenges. The first challenge that I noticed is the distributed nature of UAS, especially in BVLOS operations. Personnel and equipment are geographically spread out and separated. The Launch and Recovery Element (LRE) may not always be co-located with the Mission Control Element (MCE). LRE pilots preflight the aircraft and prepare it for the flight without the Mission Commander ever seeing or touching the aircraft. Crew briefs and maintenance records reviews occur via online messaging and telcons. This makes standardized communications and information sharing a top priority, since everyone can’t physically see the aircraft that will be accepted for flight. The principles of Crew Resource Management (CRM) and standardized turnover briefs are vital during long missions with multiple personnel changes.

NASA Photo

Staying a Step Ahead

High levels of automation can lead to complacency, so it is important to stay engaged. Every command and input requires a mental check of “where should the UA go, where could the UA go, and where is the UA going?”

Thorough mission planning and proper preparation are keys for successful UAS operations. UAS crews must focus on weather forecasts and the possible impacts to the mission profile, C2 performance, flight range, endurance, and landing limitations. Forecasted landing conditions also drive the need to constantly update divert options. High levels of system automation require detailed preflight checks of navigation systems, waypoints, and flight controls. Flying a UAS, especially a BVLOS UAS, involves staying “ahead of the aircraft.” This philosophy complements the planned contingency profiles of the UAS. The contingency profiles lead to predictability for both the crew and air traffic controllers in knowing how the unmanned aircraft should respond in certain abnormal situations.

The human-machine-interface with BVLOS unmanned aircraft creates certain challenges, especially with Command Directed systems that create a “human-on-the-loop” setup, as opposed to a “human-in-the-loop” structure. Instead of traditional pilot inputs for direct control of the jet, the UA relies on commands via software and datalinks to manipulate the control surface servos. It becomes a series of “click and enter” vice “stick and rudder” inputs. The pilot sends a command (up link) to maneuver and then waits for confirmation (down link) that the UA accepts the command to begin maneuvering. At times it feels more like managing the aircraft instead of actually flying it. Long-haul airline pilots can probably relate to this.

High levels of automation can lead to complacency, so it is important to stay engaged. Every command and input requires a mental check of “where should the UA go, where could the UA go, and where is the UA going?” Pilots don’t like surprises during flight, so it is important to know the capabilities and the limitations of your UAS.

I learned to expect the unexpected and to always have a backup plan. It was a paradox of sorts in my mind in that I was flying this sophisticated equipment that is so advanced, yet my mindset was very similar to that of a student pilot during single engine primary training. I felt like I was back in a Cessna 152 constantly searching for a suitable landing area and always having a plan in case of a malfunction.

It Takes a Village …

I found it interesting that some flights can require 25 people or more to fly an aircraft with no one onboard.

Unmanned aircraft crews, unlike manned crews, cannot rely on all sensory inputs. The UA crew depends on a “heartbeat” between the control station and the UA to confirm that the C2 link is still alive. Health and monitoring reports via telemetry and system status pages replace traditional cockpit instrumentation. This is another example of reliance on automation and the associated relinquishment of some pilot control without a verification method. The component causing a warning light or fault code in flight cannot be visibly checked. This makes it difficult to determine if fluid levels are dropping due to bona fide leaks or because of some other system or software issue. UAS crews leverage CRM by using all available resources. Usually the resource is external to the ground control station, like a live weather picture from an internet source. Sound Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) is necessary to determine the best course of action since some decisions get made with limited amounts of corroborating information.

I also found it rather interesting that some flights can require 25 people or more to fly an aircraft with no one onboard. I observed new support personnel positions and functions that I was not accustomed to seeing. A team has to physically start the jet’s engine and do diagnostic tests prior to a ground control station being able to interface with the UA. Another team may be needed to tow the jet to the runway. Personnel crew a chase vehicle to closely monitor takeoffs and landings in a sterilized line of sight (LOS) environment. All of these moving pieces and parts take place in areas of aerodromes that do not typically have ground personnel present or vehicle movements in close proximity to aircraft.

The aerodromes and controllers make every effort to integrate UAS, but some segregation still exists. The most notable of which involves dedicated climb and descent sectors of airspace in the terminal environments. Once cleared to the en route environment, the unmanned jet has to act and respond like a manned aircraft as much as possible in order to ensure an acceptable level of safety for all airspace users. Being unmanned is transparent to most en route controllers during transits, since we use the same communication frequencies as the other air traffic in that airspace. I never got used to entering “0” for persons on board (POB) on the flight plan, and it took a lot of practice for me to remember to include a good contact phone number in the remarks section. The phone number served as a backup for Air Traffic Control in the event of lost communications. I never saw communication performance as an issue. The multiple control links were available, reliable, and they had great integrity. These robust links protected us from the possible adverse effects of prolonged transmission latency in a BVLOS environment.

The last challenge I want to mention is configuration management. The nature of UAS operations offers a variety of options for control stations during all phases of flight. This adds an element of complexity when troubleshooting malfunctions. If one control station has faults or errors, it can be replaced with another available station. This swap can occur while the UA is on the ground or with an in-flight “handoff” to another control station. If the error is still present after the swap, then the issue is probably with the UA and not the control station. It is extremely important to have tracking methods and established controls based on equipment identifiers. There has to be a protocol that accounts for the location and use of every piece of equipment in the overall system since so many pieces are interchangeable. This process becomes even more important during inspections and required maintenance.

U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin

As you can see, I am a huge proponent of UAS. It is my hope that you can use some of the techniques and strategies outlined here for addressing challenges associated with your own UAS flights and ensuring that these challenges do not grow into hazards that introduce unacceptable levels of risk for other airspace users or for persons and property on the ground.

This is an exciting and evolutionary time for global aviation. So I can’t help but ask, “Will these unmanned systems be the new norm in aviation?” Only time and the regulations will tell. In the meantime, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to use my UAS experience, along with the expertise of others, to help shape the regulatory landscape for UAS in the National Airspace System.

Chris Huebner is an Aviation Safety Inspector and UAS Subject Matter Expert in the General Aviation Operations Branch (AFS-830). He is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve assigned to the Navy’s first MQ-4C Triton squadron.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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