The Predator drone is not an ambi-turner

Fans of Zoolander will be pleased to know that the Predator drone is not an ambi-turner: it is pre-programmed to orbit left around a point.This was an issue when the $1 million pod that the US slung underneath the originally-Israeli-developed aricraft required right turns. The pilots have to manually build up flight plans for nearly every operation.

I learned this during a talk by a retired USAF pilot to a gathering of local pilots.

According to this guy, who was recalled after a long career to fly drones, the Predator can take off at up to 2,500 lbs and climb to 25,000′ with a feeble 115 hp turbocharged Rotax engine. The biggest cause of loss of the $4 million aircraft was turbocharger failure that would then take out the engine due to a shared oil system. The second most common reason for loss was icing due to the fact that the aircraft lacks anti-ice or de-ice equipment: “You get into the clouds in the mountains of Afghanistan and you instantly ice up.” The aircraft did have an ice detector and alarm for the pilot.

When the drone loses communication via the KU satellite it takes 12 minutes for the link to be reestablished. During these 12 minutes the drone will fly its flight plan.. including right into a thunderstorm (this happened to the speaker once).

Takeoff and landing were usually handled by a local team right at the airfield where the Predator was based. “Pilot-induced oscillation on landing was common. The nose gear would collapse and the $1 million sensor ball underneath the aircraft would be destroyed.” Once above 3,000′ AGL a U.S.-based crew would take over. If the job is sitting and drinking a large Starbucks beverage, what happens during bathroom breaks? You might think that control of the drone is zapped to another crew’s workstation, but instead the break crew comes in and physically sits in the chairs just vacated by the pilot and enlisted guy (“sensor operator”) who head out for McDonald’s. The speaker explained that, because the Predator is firing a weapon, the pilot must be an officer under current USAF rules.

The Predator lacks any kind of traffic avoidance or warning system. “We would get advisories from ATC.”

Pilots who transitioned to the Predator from traditional aircraft did better than pilots for whom flying was purely a desk job. The drone-only pilots would put in huge rapid power changes at high altitude, rather than making the smooth throttle adjustments of an experienced turbocharged piston pilot, and the result would be cracking, oil loss, and a $4 million hole in the ground.

Due to the turbocharger failures and losses from icing encounters, the Predator has been replaced with the larger and vastly more expensive turbine-powered Reaper, but the Reaper cannot match the Predator’s 22-hour loiter time.

Our speaker had served in Vietnam and said that he and his age cohort enjoyed killing the “bad guys” (of course, the jihadis are entitled to their own opinion regarding which side is “bad”!). So they’d clock out after blasting a house with a Hellfire missile and enjoy hanging out with friends and family. The young guys, on the other hand, complained of myriad psychological problems and are retiring at a 100 percent disability rate due to PTSD.

Speaking of psychological problems, I am not sure that the snowflake generation would have felt safe at the pilot gathering. Jokes told over the PA involved prostitutes and lawyers, for example. The tamest example:

One guy has a 7-year-old Goldendoodle who is addicted to humping females of the canine persuasion. The animal’s name is “Marvin,” but for the last few months the family has been calling him “Marvey Weinstein”.

More typical:

Bill and Hillary are at a Yankees home game, sitting in the first row, with the Secret Service people directly behind them.

One of the Secret Service guys leans forward and whispers something to Bill.

At first, Clinton stares at the guy, looks at Hillary, looks back at the
agent, and shakes his head “no”.

The agent then says, “Mr. President, it was a unanimous request of the entire team, from the owner of the team to the bat boy.

The agents tells Bill that the fans would love it.

Bill shrugs his shoulders and says, “Ho-Kay! If that is what the people want.
C’mere Hilly baby.”

With that, Bill gets up, grabs Hillary by her collar and the seat of her pants and throws her over the wall onto the field.

She gets up kicking, swearing, screaming, “Bill you”!$#@&!”. The crowd goes absolutely wild. Fans are jumping up and down, cheering, hooting and hollering, and high-fiving. Bill is bowing, smiling and waving to the crowd.

He leans over to the agent and says, “How about that; I would have never believed how much everyone would enjoy that!”

Noticing the agent has gone totally pale, he asks what is wrong.

The agent replies, “Sir, I said they want you to throw out the first ‘pitch’.”


7 thoughts on “The Predator drone is not an ambi-turner

  1. “The drone-only pilots would put in huge rapid power changes at high altitude, rather than making the smooth throttle adjustments of an experienced turbocharged piston pilot, and the result would be cracking, oil loss, and a $4 million hole in the ground.”

    For a couple million dollars someone could program up a throttle control system that would take the throttle input and, if too fast, rate limit it so that it does not shock the engine. There is probably some arduino sketch out there that would get a novice programmer 95% of the way there…

  2. Any idea of how much these errors stack up against manned planes, in terms of costs and in terms of tactical and strategical results. I’d be curious.

    Concerning PTSD, my Finnish lot assures me the drinking started after the Winter war, and affected three generations of Finns: those who fought, their kids and through their kids the grandkids. Keep in mind these people were fighting for their land, in their land and with the support and gratitude of their people and still got it. Maybe your fighter friend just did standard bombing runs without having to study his target for hours/days before pulverising it? Old people are just callous bastards (my students would heartily say that of myself)?

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