Words of Advice:

"If Something Seems To Be Too Good To Be True, It's Best To Shoot It, Just In Case." -- Fiona Glenanne

"Flying the Airplane is More Important than Radioing Your Plight to a Person on the Ground
Who is Incapable of Understanding or Doing Anything About It." -- Unknown

“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level
and then beat you with experience.” -- Mark Twain

"Stay Strapped or Get Clapped." -- probably not Mr. Rogers

"Eck!" -- George the Cat

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Air Force Project Management: It's More Expensive to Fly Drones Than Manned Aircraft

The Air Force has managed to screw up the Global Hawk program so badly that it has become cheaper to keep flying U-2s than to fly Global Hawks.

One has to wonder what sort of platinum-plated nonsense the Air Force was doing in order to drive the cost of a drone over that of a manned aircraft doing the same mission.

Or, it could be that this is a serious bit of Air Force fuckery that did exactly what they wanted to: Keep seats in manned airplanes. For while the Air Force has been adamant about only using rated pilots to operate drones, even those clowns know that nobody is going to join the Air Force in order to basically play with a fancy flight simulator program.


Jim_Pickering said...

I suspect the requirement to maintain the pilot community in the Air Force won, but the cost of the drone has not been sustainable. Both (the drone and the U-2) are susceptible to advanced ground based missiles. If Northrop were not so greedy, the drone might still have prevailed but with a limited budget, something has to give.

bob said...

Yes Northrop is greedy, but it appears that the major screw up on the Global Hawk is not the air frame (although it does have a few issues) it is the sensor package and it's communication system (subcontracted to Raytheon). That is where the majority of the cost and problems with the the program are located.

Then there is a secondary issue. Accident rates. For some reason the USAF has a higher accident rate per hour flown then the USAR in equivalent airframes (MQ-1/RQ-1). No reports of accident rates for the USN, USAF, NASA RQ-4, although at least 3 RQ-4 have been lost.

The MQ-1/RQ-1 have fairly light wing loading (18.2 LB/FT^2) some where between that of Cessna 182 (17.8 LB/FT^2) and Cessna 206 (20.5 lb/FT^2). So gusts and turbulence can be a real problem for these air frames. As a point of reference the A-10 has a wing loading of 98.8 LB/FT^2.

Any one who has flown at high altitude on a hot afternoon with wind gust know what a handful an aircraft with a low wing loading can be.

Gust sensitivity is a function of Wing Loading and Density Altitude.

How to explain the difference it unknown at this time. Most of the incidents are prangs on landing, imagine that.

The higher accident rate by USAF versus USAR might be procedure, or it just might be the training that USAF provides versus the training that USAR provides.

USAR does not require that their "UAV Pilots" be rated aviators. USAF does require that their "UAV Pilots" be rated.

Some have suggested that Human Factors associated with the design of the Ground Control Station (GCS) are the major factor in the different accident rates, given that USAR has a later design of the GCS, and that the USAF has been lagging in upgrades to their GCS.

Lack of high fidelity flight simulator for training has also been cited, along with procedure and procedure training.

Some have cited high operational tempo, and lack of trained maintainers.

The USAF accident rate has been dropping.

Bad news in the pipeline is the X-47B which technically does not have a "Pilot", it is autonomous vehicle, you just tell it where to go and and what altitude you want it to be at,and what it is to do when it gets there, it does the rest.

Now there are stories starting to appear about what are the legal ramifications of having an attack aircraft that does not have a man in the loop. I suspect that some of these questions are being raised by the USN Aviation community.

I do not remember those arguments when the AGM 109 Tomahawk was introduced, I guess the fact that you did not expect or want it to return to the sender made it special.

Comrade Misfit said...

After all, the Tomahawk is a weapon, the act of shooting it is the launch from the sub/warship.

Nangleator said...

I imagine all the airlines are doing two things:

1. Sweating bullets that the flow of trained pilots is trickling off, forcing them to consider NOT destroying general aviation, and actually spending money to do airline pilot training themselves;


2. Getting erections lasting longer than four hours about the notion of pilotless airliners.

Ruckus said...

EBM, I suspect irony here. You were in the military and have the slightest doubt that they can screw up any hardware project? How many weapons systems, but especially larger ones, come in anywhere near budget or specifications? How many times does it seem that the dreamers and designers for military hardware must smoke some good shit? It's about the only explanation that makes sense to me. And that doesn't even count congress, who want to pay for stuff that even the pentagon doesn't want, or at least claim that publicly. I don't say this often but at least one repub president (Eisenhower) was right(at least one time anyway). Watch out for the MIC.

Comrade Misfit said...

Nangleator, pilotless airliners, at least passenger craft, will not happen in our lifetimes.

Ruckus, note one of the tags to this post. The defense contractors and the boyos at Fort Fumble play the Congress as thought it were a fiddle. You want to see who the powerful guys are in Congress, look where the new plants for military hardware are going. When Jim Wright was the speaker of the house, a factory for a new AF trainer was planned for his district. When the GOP wanted to protect its one Black congressman, the Army's contractor announced that the factory for the Crusader SP gun would go in his district. The Navy makes sure that parts for carriers come from as many states as possible.

And so it goes. Which is why cuts are almost always first made to manpower levels as there are a lot fewer constituents to complain.

Peter said...

I'm informed that the Global Hawk program began as a technology demonstrator, and was never intended for mass production. When the USAF turned around (after 9/11) and told Northrop to mass-produce the things, it caused huge engineering headaches that have never been satisfactorily resolved - not to mention very expensive aircraft and high-cost maintenance. I have no independent confirmation of that information, but it comes from someone who's in a position to know about it, so take it as you see fit.

Stewart Dean said...

...have to wonder how an old, old airframe like the U-2 can be economically maintained and flown.

CenterPuke88 said...

The airframe issue is actually a more modern concern, given that the older aircraft were often grossly over-engineered due to the reliance on manual calculations and older alloys (that, incidently, were better understood).

The U-2's operational environment is actually conducive to long lifespans, high altitude operation causes less stress on the wings and other load bearing components...the pressurization cycles would be the major worry. Given the U-2 reportedly maintains a cabin pressure equivilent of about 29,000ft, that's not a strong worry.

For all the talk about the U-2's "lightly built airframe" being overstressed easily at altitude, that's simply a factor of the inherent coffin corner that aircraft flying at ultra-high altitudes paint themselves into. Also of note for this, is the low wing loading of the U-2, which (as Bob notes) make it easier to overstress.