The Missing Link in Aviation Safety – Airborne Sensor Operator

ASOG Article of the Month: November 2021

ASOG Author: Patrick Ryan

As of today, the ASO profession, in general, is not recognized or formalized by many civil aviation authorities around the world. Why is this, and what can be done to professionalize this aircrew position and improve Aviation Safety?


Aviation Safety concerns are the most relevant in all aviation sectors, be it GA, Airlines, and Aerial Work aviation. This is because so many human lives are always at stake, making it worth all the right reasons to improve on it. Additionally, in the civil aviation sector (especially in the Aerial Work aviation community), the economic effect of an accident or regulatory violation can be a disaster regarding staying in business for many medium and small companies.

One of the primary reasons accidents & violations happen is due to human error in the cockpit and between the various crew members. The fuel that usually feeds human error is a lack of professionalism, skills, and a poor safety mindset at different levels within the various career fields that make up the aviation community.

So, What do I Mean by "Missing Link."

The "Link "that I'm talking about is the civil non-rated Airborne Sensor Operator (ASO) career field. This profession is a global group of highly skilled technical individuals focused, along with rated pilots, on collecting information or data from an aircraft for critical governments and commercial-type applications. For instance:

  • Aerial Surveying & Mapping
  • Aerial Photography
  • Aerial Cinematography
  • Aerial Videography
  • Flight Inspection
  • Aerial Agriculture
  • Aerial Firefighting
  • Aerial Maritime Patrol
  • Aerial Search & Rescue
  • Airborne Law Enforcement
  • Airborne Command & Control
  • Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
  • Airborne Electronic Warfare
  • And more….

Since the beginning of man flight, ASOs have directly participated as crew members in civil and military aerial remote sensing operations. Today, hundreds and even thousands of individuals operate as ASOs on and off-board a manned or unmanned aircraft worldwide and across the spectrum of Aerial Work aviation. To highlight this point, search the internet and what you'll find are many job postings for:

  • Airborne Sensor Operator
  • Payload Operator
  • Aerial Survey Operator
  • Aerial Photographer
  • Tactical Flight Officer
  • Aerial cinematographer
  • And many more…

However, ASO's have been overlooked or ignored by the global aviation community regarding standards, training, and developing a safety mindset equal to rated Pilots, Flight Dispatchers, and Flight Engineers. Again, search the internet, and you'll find very little regarding specific civil aviation regulations or non-government organizations producing or promoting standards for this profession, i.e., the Civil Aviation Authorities, industry, and the aviation world, in general, are not "closing the link."  

Bottomline - The aviation sector is failing not to recognize and take action to mitigate a source of risk.

Passenger vs. Aircrew Member

When it comes to the question of what is an ASO, one would argue that there is no safety "Missing Link" because the Airborne Sensor Operator is just a:

  • "Passenger"
  • The "Guy in Back" (GIB)
  • "Self-Loading Luggage"
  • Some person who babysits a sensor on a tethered Aerostat
  • "The Dude standing next to me operating the camera on my drone"

Additionally, others would argue that individual civil ASO's are not in direct control of the aircraft like a Pilot or Flight Engineer, which mitigates them as a link in the risk management process. Therefore, no need to establish and enforce standards for this aircrew profession.

Plus, others would say civil ASO's should informally mirror pilot & remote pilot standards and best practices to meet the job's critical safety & task expectations. But, in general, it should not bother the established civil aviation community with another area of improvement. Or industry should hire from the various militaries worldwide for well-trained ASO's.

The counter-argument to this is the true intent of Civil Aviation Safety – "Mitigate Risk." The means of mitigating this risk is to identify areas of improvement and apply the appropriate actions or efforts in a rigorous & standardized manner. 

In this case – Airborne Sensor Operators. Allowing a group of professionals to participate in flight activities without universal guidance and oversight is a formula for trouble. Developing and implementing mechanisms to professionalize the ASO aircrew position, the civil aviation community will shave off accident percentages, ASOs will improve their skills, and commercial firms will protect their bottom-line.

Closing the Missing Link

Like with any problem, there is a solution. In this case, the solution is no different than the qualification process used for rated crewmembers, i.e., standards, training, and certification.


The first step is to establish and publish standards. This action consists of civil aviation authorities (ICAO, CAA, FAA, EASA, etc.) to recognize this aircrew position and establish basic operating standards. Doing so will provide an authoritative framework for non-government organizations (Associations, Aviation Societies, Industry, etc.) to refine & improve specific non-rated ASO/flight crew safety and qualification programs, i.e., Professionalize with safety and improvement mindset.


The second step is to establish ASO training programs focused on airmanship and remote-sensing knowledge linked to the above civil aviation and industry standards. To achieve this training, non-governmental organizations (Flight Schools, etc.) would develop and offer dedicated training courses for ASO crewmembers beyond what is offered today.

Formal ASO training for ASO's will educate a group of active flying participants who lacked access to such training in the past. Without a doubt, this approach will help expand the expertise within manned and unmanned flight operations and diminish some of the risks associated with flying.


The third and final step is to establish professional Certifications to formally validate an individual ASO's level of knowledge and experience. Like with other aviation professions establishing a global certification system will enhance the professionalism of the ASO/Aircrew member career field while providing commercial & non-commercial entities the means to mitigate risk by hiring quickly & correctly with a standard qualification criterion.


Again, It appears the aviation community has a "Missing Link" in its safety perspective. The link is related to a particular highly skilled aviation group, in this case, the Airborne Sensor Operator.

As of today, the ASO profession, in general, is not recognized or formalized by many civil aviation authorities around the world. Because of this, the ASO profession lacks the formalization to guide participants to the next level of professionalism & a safety mindset equal to other critical aviation careers fields. By incrementally formalizing this profession through standards, training, and certification programs, the aviation community as a whole, as it should, can improve its safety margins!

However, today, the aviation industry sector is failing not to recognize and take action to mitigate a source of risk. It doesn't make sense. Why the non-action?

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  • Hi Duncan Duncan Macdonald , Wow…excellent information. Thank you ! I think CASA is leading the global ICAO/CAA community on recognizing and formalizing the non-rated aircrew profession. Ref “nearly impossible to acquire”…agree, this is a universal problem around the world, just not for certification but aircrew basic training. I hope ASOG will make a difference in these areas. Question, what ratings do you have? Again, Thanks Duncan!

  • Thanks for the blog. In Australia the ASO/Aircrew Officer role has grown rapidly in the past 20 years. It's been fuelled by a combination of established civil and parapublic operators and ex-military types coming into the civilian SAR and EMS world seeing gaps in the system.  Many EMS Aircrew Officers in Australia are essentially non-flying co-pilots assisting with cockpit duties, but they're also down-the-wire and hoist operators. Some are also FLIR sensor operators depending on the contract. Australia does have a Certificate IV in Aviation that recognises the skills and functions of non-flying aircrew, however it's nearly impossible to acquire unless you are already employed and have access to training and flying hours in order to meet the requirements. Sensor operating is but one of the competencies in the qualification (and not mandatory) but I've posted a link to the qualification here as it may help others in some way.

  • Concur.

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