No One on Board: Ikhana Pilots Fly Aircraft from the Ground
Guiding a mission remotely from a ground cockpit without the feel, smells and sounds of a traditional aircraft and the environment in which it flies is a challenge routinely tackled by Dryden Ikhana pilots Herman Posada and Mark Pestana.
Posada flew Predator unmanned aircraft systems for General Atomic Aeronautical Systems for 10 years prior to joining Dryden as an Ikhana pilot. Dryden's Predator B, a civil variant, is named Ikhana after the Choctaw Nation word "Ikhana" (pronounced ee-KAH-nah), which means "intelligent."
Posada adapted to differences between the Ikhana and Predator aircraft, learning the former's idiosyncrasies in order to fly it successfully.
"I think it's just experience," Posada said of piloting the Ikhana. "The experience is not for everybody. It's not a perfect system, but there are ways to make it work right."
For Mark Pestana, who never flew a UAV prior to his experiences with the Ikhana, it was an adjustment to fly without the sensations of the cockpit in the sky.
"The data and displays are presented for a pilot in a way that's different from a traditional cockpit," he said of the ground-station experience.
"Instead of physical switches - toggle switches or dials - you're using a keyboard and track ball and pulling down menus like you would on your personal computer, to activate systems. Understanding where all of these system controls are located and finding the right screen display to access the controls is challenging."
While the flight simulator offered stick and throttle familiarity, it didn't simulate how to use all of the aircraft's many displays, Pestana said. A home computer flight simulator offered help, but produced sound when he made engine adjustments to signal that acceleration was successful. When piloting the Ikhana, he has to visually confirm the engine power readings and airspeed readout to determine whether the airplane is doing what he commanded through the throttle.
"We use the simulator as a tool to get the gist of the operation," Posada added. "They're trying to teach you how to fly an aircraft in a completely different way than most pilots have learned how to fly. We use it to go through procedures and to familiarize the pilot with where the different buttons live and do some maneuvers in the simulator that we wouldn't do with the real aircraft. Basically, we use it as a procedures trainer."
Landing the aircraft can be another challenge for pilots unaccustomed to the ground station cockpit because of the absence of sound and sight cues, including peripheral vision, available in a manned cockpit, Posada said.
And because of the flood of information available to the pilot and the stresses of the ground cockpit, pilots fly no more than two hours at a time. When shifts of up to 12 hours are required additional pilots are contracted, with none flying more than two hours at a time, Posada said. Ikhana missions can total more than 20 hours.
Two fully operational pilot stations are occupied for takeoffs and landings, although only one pilot can fly at a time. A single pilot can handle the aircraft during flight and requires assistance only with the demands of takeoff and landing.
"There's a lot of stuff you're looking at while working the radios and checklists. It's a little too much for one (pilot). You need an extra set of eyes because sometimes you're drowning in information. Having other people say your speed is high or fast, or telling you to watch your sink rate is important," Posada said.
And a second set of eyes offers another benefit.
"A second pilot is sitting at the rack (pilot station) in case there are problems. That allows us to switch racks, because a pilot is sitting there and ready to take control of the airplane," Pestana said.
Piloting the Ikhana does have some similarities to flying manned aircraft.
"It's a team effort. There are a lot of people on the team. Without their vital support, we couldn't get the airplane in the air," Posada said.
On flight days it's not uncommon for the first crewmembers to arrive at midnight for a morning flight because of the Ikhana's special start-up requirements, Pestana explained.
Unlike a traditional aircraft, for example, in which the ground crew can call for a fuel truck and have the aircraft fueled well before the mission, the Ikhana must be turned on and operational for refueling. The engine powers a generator that provides electricity. In the event of a generator failure, the backup system takes special batteries that must be charged several hours before flight. That's why the first team members must arrive so far in advance of takeoff.
Pilots and crew generally arrive three hours prior to the flight for completing work such as preparing the ground station, verifying software, checking flight plans, programming an emergency flight plan and fueling and preparing the aircraft.
The Ikhana system also offers capabilities that are key for certain science missions.
"A primary advantage that this system offers over traditional aircraft is endurance and altitude," Pestana said. "For example, atmospheric scientists prefer to have continuous data collection over a full day's cycle, where the presence or absence of sunlight may drive chemical reactions in the atmosphere that affect weather and climate.
"This aircraft makes it possible to cover long distances and over 24 hours on a single mission."
Posada and Pestana have an appreciation for the complexity of the aircraft they fly and the team that makes it possible to succeed in new types of missions.