In the last 30 years, the Aerostat aircraft has undergone tremendous changes in both mission and sensor equipment. If you don’t know what an Aerostat is, it’s a low-level airborne ground surveillance system that uses aerostats (moored balloons) as a sensor & communications platform, i.e., an unmanned aerial vehicle. Along with these changes, the roles & responsibilities of the operator have also changed to include managing sensors.
Today's Aerostat Operator
Jump forward to today, and the individuals who manage the mission of an Aerostat is commonly known as the Aerostat Operator (AO). On the ISR side of the house the AO, besides managing the flight of the Aerostat, is responsible for quite a mix of cutting-edge technologies and radios.
The ISR Aerostat platform of today is usually fielded to provide Operations and Sustainment (O&S) support to include the Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) and Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS). The ISR Aerostat aircraft is considered part of the Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) that provides integrated persistent surveillance, detection capabilities, and Full Motion Video (FMV) dissemination to Tactical Operation Centers (TOC). The Aerostat system integrates different sensors to detect small arms fires and Counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) activity near airfields, fixed-base encampments, forward operating locations, and other facilities in support of rapid reaction security forces in the area of operation.
Considering all the flight oversight of the platform and the sensor operations an AO must manage during a routine mission or shift, the AO of today is often multi-tasked like other aircrews. While keeping one eye on the threat, they’re also watching the flight status of the airship and all the elements that provide critical support. Also, there’re usually two or more tactical radios, chats or land-lines buzzing asking a million questions about the situation.
Besides the AO managing all the system maintenance, sensor operations, and mission duties, he or she must maintain and provide attention to his or her primary duty: safety-of-flight. Even with all the responsibilities of the force protection mission, the AO must always look for conflicting aircraft activity and weather conditions.
Like with other flight operations, if additional tasking is assigned, it’s often the AO that interacts to complete the mission. For example, if the Aerostat system needs to relocate, the AO must coordinate to make sure all the elements of the system is mobilized in a quick-reaction manner and doesn’t miss a beat in operational readiness.
Selection and Training
Most companies and organizations have a formalized selection process for AOs. Among the usual hiring criteria considered are work records, experience, and technical skills. Any flying experience is considered, but many successful AOs have limited or no prior aviation experience. However, after completing Aerostat training and building mission hours, they develop a baseline aviation skill set.
Training programs have also become much more formal and structured. Current training consists of formal classroom, simulation, and in-flight events to learn how to manage and use all the technology and resources available. The newly assigned AO must learn quite a bit about a sometimes completely strange environment. They learn to speak aviation with such terms like transponders, safety management systems and aircraft de-confliction to name just a few. Although every organization has different requirements, many training programs from start to a fully qualified AO can take anywhere from xx months to a year. This does not include any additional even-more-specialized training that an AO might need. If the AO does multi-duty work such as special system repairs or management duties, the AO has additional training.
Once fully mission qualified, there is constant recurrence training. As with most technologies, equipment and capabilities change rapidly, and the AO is expected to keep up with any changes or new mission equipment that becomes available.
One could say that a surveillance aircraft is just an aircraft until a properly trained Operator makes it a true surveillance platform. Operating in such demanding conditions requires all the same skills as a good ISR or any aerial work crewmember:
- Planning, and Coordinating Expertise
- Technical adept
- Personal Leadership and Integrity
- Communication (written and oral)
- Accountability for Results
Bottom-line, the Aerostat aircraft has come a long way since its employment. Additionally, the Operators have also come along way in their roles & responsibilities. Todays Aerostat Operator is more than a ground crew managing a tethered airship; they’re aircraft maintainer, pilot and sensor operator all in one. In many ways similar to a sUAS/RPA operator.