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What’s Your ISR Sensor Operator Vetting Process?

Finding the right person to fill a position is always a challenge.  Will they fit in with the culture of your company or unit?  In the airborne sensing business, this can be an extremely tricky question, and it depends upon the position you are trying to fill.

If you need an operator to run a sensor in a low threat, low altitude, civilian aircraft in a non-combat area, then almost anyone with average technical skills, average common sense, and average ability will be able to do the work, unless they have some previously undiscovered motion sickness or fear of flying issue.  One could say, these types of missions are “low threat, routine” and any competent person can do them without much hassle, and only minimal training is required on how to run the systems.

However, if you are trying to find a person who can run a sensor (of any kind) in a combat zone and have direct contact with the “customer” on the ground, you MUST set up your criteria for what you want representing you and your company.  The individual you hire may be the hottest thing on two wheels during routine, day-in day-out, pattern of life style missions, but on “THAT DAY,” you need someone who can handle the pressure of doing it right the first time, every time.

When I was on active duty in the Air Force, we were not allowed to remove a student from training without cause.  With pressure from the headquarters to constantly turn out more and more operators (because we were always undermanned), we wanted to identify early which of our prospective students were most likely to need extra attention, or possibly would need more unusual training methods to get the instruction to “stick.”  Since these individuals would also be flying with us when we deployed, we had a vested interest in making sure they were the best we could make them.

 We devised a “vetting” process we would use for our prospective students.  The student candidates had to accomplish the following, simultaneously, for an hour:

  1. Play HALO (or any other storyline, first person shooter game) on medium and not die.
  2. Monitor a second screen with CNN, FOX or some other national news outlet, with a news scroll bar across the bottom, and keep track of what was scrolling.
  3. Listen to an audio book in their left ear, and be able to relate the major plot lines and characters of the story.
  4. Listen to a music play list in their right ear, and keep track of which songs they had heard.

We did not expect (nor did we ever achieve) a perfect score.  But, what we did learn was that students who had the hand eye coordination, prioritization skills, and ability to train themselves to pay attention to what was important at that moment, had a much higher success rate than those who were natively unable to handle these tasks.

In the aircraft, it happens MUCH faster, and the consequences are simply life and death.

As instructors and trainers of military flyers, this was the most realistic vetting we could come up with that could approximate the average workload on a combat mission profile.

Our operators had to be able to track a moving target with a camera, and not lose PID, listen to the combat chatter of the ground team we were supporting, and make sure we were fully informed of what their locations, plans, and current actions were.  We also had to keep track of our aircraft position relative to our currently assigned airspace and altitude block, keep track of the pilots’ coordination with the airspace control authority, as well as any other supporting aircraft that were in the same piece of airspace with us.  We then had to be able to relay ALL this information to the ground force commander, so he or she was fully informed of the activities in their command area, in preparation for, or in direct support of, combat operations.

In the airborne sensor world, defining what you expect from your operators clearly and establishing an effective “vetting” process, and then training them to do the job properly will ensure a positive result. Having the right and well-trained crew member will help the individual, the crew, and the unit gets the job done right the first time, every time.

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