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Your ISR mission aircraft is only as good as your ISR Operator

(Training mission operators with a dwindling budget)

Now that you’ve spent $18 million for a fully equipped Beech 350 MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft), and $8 million for a full ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) equipped Twin EC135,  or $4 million for a single engine A-Star, you think that taxpayers’ monies are well spent; and you don’t have to worry about a thing for the next 5-10 years…  Except for the occasional aircraft and mission system repair.  Is this really the case though when, under current conditions, many operators will spend a large amount of money training in the air? While training is of great importance, in order to be truly effective and to provide the best return on investment for the operator, it must involve the entire mission crew and employ a more cost effective solution. So you better think again.


During the preparation of this article, it came as no surprise that the majority of ALE (Airborne Law Enforcement) and ISR operators admitted ‘some’ of the equipment knowledge imparted to them years ago during their (one-time…) manufacturer equipment training had been forgotten; what came as a major surprise was that some of them detailed this knowledge loss as up to 60%...  And this wasn’t just the small operators, but particularly larger government institutions deploying more than half a dozen ISR aircraft.  It also appeared that the more years the operators were doing their job, the less likely they would ask for refresher training – and if they did ask, that training more often than not became the first casualty in the yearly fight for the ever-shrinking budget.  Spares and training are normally the first items to be negotiated downwards during contract negotiations. However, because a missing spare part means mission abort and AOG (Aircraft on Ground), it seems in the end spares are mostly winning the battle.  Having halftrained ISR operators on the other hand rarely gets any mention (or remedy), very likely because when no targets are detected, it is easier to blame the equipment or simply state there must be less targets out there because the missions are such a great deterrent…


Aside from this, for those who want and get ISR training funded an even bigger battle ensues: almost 100% of all ISR training has to happen with the actual equipment on real flying aircraft.  This raises such ugly issues as: -  We are short on aircraft for operator training because we’re too busy flying real missions

- We are short on operators and/or pilots,

- We are short on budget and cant fund training flights at $4,000/hr for 50 operators -  We are short, we’re short, and we’re short…


What we are not short on, is missed opportunities to detect targets, to track and identify them. We are our own worst enemy. We clamor for high MTBF equipment but think we don’t have to buy spares.  We specify the most sophisticated equipment but think we don’t have to spend time/money on equally sophisticated operators.   


Large operators of any type of aircraft, commercial as well as military, have solved their pilot training problem to a great extent thru the use of aircraft simulators.  The forecasted pilot simulator market of $16 Billion by 2020 attests to that, as does the number and size of dedicated aircraft simulator companies. But it’ is extremely rare and very expensive to include in such simulators the rest of the mission crew tasks. The number of dedicated ISR simulator companies, whether it be radar, EOIR, EW (Electronic Warfare) or other mission equipment, is but a fraction of their aircraft simulator counterparts – both in number as well as in size. Consequently, ISR operators are left to study manuals, ask for advice from fellow operators, or resort to the standard excuses when the mission results are poor.


We are again our own worst enemy: when loss of life (our life...) is involved we want the best pilot training money can buy; when loss of target and mission efficiency is involved we think we can get by with the absolute minimum.  The abundance of mandatory FAA pilot training requirements against practically non-existing mandatory TFO training only magnifies this gap.


It does not have to be that way!  We can train ISR operators effectively for greater mission success, and please the accounting folks by spending less money in the process.  It is kudos all around – so why don’t we do it?  And what, really, is an EOIR  (Electro-Optic Infra-Red) simulator anyway?


In the course of several discussions on this topic with the user community, we rarely encountered disagreement on the need for training. And very often the same reasons for lack of training were the same:

- No time (or lack of time)

- No money (or budget constraints)

- No equipment (or limited access to equipment)

Yet most customers agreed that there was sufficient non-air time which could have been used for training purposes, but more often than not, there was no training time scheduled because of recurring lack of ground training equipment.

Even champions of training within a user group lost their enthusiasm when confronted with this problem.

No Money (or budget constraints).

Yet a lot of money was available for a totally insufficient amount of in-flight EOIR training. Cost of such (mostly unsupervised and without feedback) airborne training ran around $2,500+/hr for twin engine helicopters ($1,300+/hr for single engine) to $6,000+/hr for larger fixed wing platforms. Assuming every operator needs a bare minimum of 16 hours training per year, the money available for in-flight training for even half of that is staggering – especially when multiplied by the number of operators in a fleet of ISR aircraft.  Somehow ‘the flying budget’ was easier justified and tapped than the ‘training budget’…regardless of the fact that over the past 15 years the cost per flight hour has increased at an average of 8% per year.

No Equipment (or limited access to equipment)

This was the most common reason given for the lack of hands-on equipment training – ranging from zero equipment available to equipment available but not in a manner that would allow training.  Yet most customers had a fleet of 2+ or many more EOIR turrets – all nicely installed on aircraft but without the necessary extra group A kit to allow operation in a class room…  Even when cabling was available, the dilemma of powering up a million dollar turret for 8 hours/day for 10+ days per year meant 10%-30% of the MTBF-coupled (Mean Time Between Failure) warranty hours were eaten up by the training department!   

So the Time/Money/Equipment problem is very real and difficult to address within the overall management structure.  On the other hand, flying missions with half-trained ISR operators carries practically no repercussions in the daily operator life.

Since the Time factor needs a commitment from a dedicated champion within every organization, there is little technology can do to create such a person/commitment.   

However, the Money/Equipment factors can today be more than adequately addressed by implementing new technologies: the tremendous costs of in-flight training can be obviated by the simple procurement of a simulator dedicated to the ISR sensor at hand. We hinted earlier at the ‘per hour flying cost’ of typical aircraft for the purpose of training ISR sensor operators – we feel that an appropriately selected ISR sensor simulator can reduce these flying cost by up to 90% over a 5-year period.  At least 20%-30% of the ISR operator training must be performed in-flight in order to address real-life CRM (Crisis Response Management) issue; the remaining need for manual dexterity and operational knowledge can be obtained via regular simulator training.   

Addressing Money/Equipment from the perspective of both aircraft and ISR equipment, we examined four types of aircraft and their average hourly operating cost. The type of aircraft that can be used for typical ISR missions vastly outnumbers the types of EOIR systems available.  For the sake of simplicity we examined manned and unmanned, rotary and fixed-wing – with all combinations thereof.  For rotary we limited the operational flight hours to 3, while for fixed wing we selected 6 flight hours as the typical in-flight training duration.  The assumptions made are that a) the operator is trained fully 100% during the training flights, against b) the simulator training is replacing up to ~70% of those training flights (leaving 30+% for actual in-flight training).

We examined the typical hourly operating cost for several aircraft in those four categories. Our research in public literature and from actual operators revealed a large disparity of resulting hourly costs for identical or similar aircraft, depending on who produced the numbers and what result the originator wanted to achieve.  Some costs from manufacturers were disputed by customers with higher values – in that case we used the average number. The costs shown are therefore representative only of what typical hourly operating costs can be and not of any specific aircraft. For manned and unmanned aircraft we included both the requirement of a pilot and a TFO (Tactical Flight Officer); for the simulator operation we included only the TFO.

The resulting cost graphs ($1,000, $3,000 and 7,000/hr) are shown against the simulator training hours.  The cost range of an EOIR simulator is plotted as $60,000 to $200,000 based on market values – the cross-over or break-even points can be determined for every typical hourly operating cost.

Fig1: Hourly flying cost of small helicopters and fixed wing aircraft vs simulator cost



We examined also UAVs (fixed wing, rotary, airships and aerostats) with payload of 60Kg or more. The disparity between various sources on actual cost per hour of operation varied even more than with manned aircraft: the inclusion (or not…) of required support equipment and personnel in addition to the vehicle flying cost plus operator cost made for large differences in perceived totals.  For a non-armed large UAV the estimated hourly cost given was at $2,200; yet the operator stated at $10,000 while the accounting office said even that number was underestimated by at least $2,000…

It appears that the hourly operating cost ‘lies in the eye of the beholder’: we therefore decided to let the customer decide and provide typical hourly cost from helicopters up to medium-sized fixed-wing surveillance aircraft.  Hourly operating costs of $1,000, $3,000 and $7,000 represent aircraft from AS350/Cessna208-size up to C-212/Beech350 size. This gives the reader the freedom to use his own cost values to reach his conclusion on whether or not a simulator is a cost-saving item in his overall training program.  This approach also allows the reader to use yearly total training hours encompassing his complete operator fleet, and gives him the flexibility to plot the crossover points when 2 less expensive simulators are purchased instead of a single expensive one.

We found that military aircraft operating cost vary between $15,000-$80,000/hr, with some special purpose aircraft going as high as $162,000/hr.  For such environments the choice of purchasing a simulator vs. in-flight training is neither an issue nor does it warrant a detailed calculation: at $20,000/hour significant cost-savings are achieved in less than 3 hours when buying a $60,000 simulator…

Important factors:

While most simulators do a good job mimicking the actual operation of the sensor, one important hardware component cannot be overlooked: the operator tool (hand controller, key grip, keyboard, etc.) must replicate the one used in-flight. The first and most important aim of a simulator is not the high resolution video-game type images shown to the operator, but to give the operator the ability to operate the equipment in total darkness, without the need to constantly look at the hand controller or keyboard in order to find the right buttons to push or dials to select. Compare this to learning how to type: the most fluent and fastest transformation from thought to paper will be achieved by the typist who is not inhibited by constantly having to look at the keyboard. While visually following a target on screen there is no allowance for ‘looking to find the right pushbuttons on the hand controller’. The concept of ‘detect first so you can identify quickly’ takes on a whole new meaning when the system shows the detected target in milliseconds, but the operator can’t ID because he’s fumbling to find the right buttons on his hand controller.  No HD (High Definition) 100” monitor, no perfect simulation of rain or snow or desert, no 25 million color display will make this operator have a successful simulator mission – let alone during his next real-life mission where real lives may be lost or saved.

What a simulator cannot do is simulate the stress associated with actual missions, when ‘flying fatigue’ sets in and the human eyes see but the brain fails to register. Still, a good simulator can provide a large degree of ‘situation awareness’ which is totally lacking with a real system operated in a class-room or aircraft hangar. And a simulator can easily provide direct inputs and feedback, and even inexpensive testing during the writing and fine-tuning of ISR Operational Procedures.


Specific sensor simulators (EOIR, radar, etc.) are needed to establish a cadre of well-trained TFOs, who will thus provide:

a. Most comprehensive and on-the-spot feedback from training supervisors and mission replay.

b. The best instant tactical performance in-the air which will lead to successful missions, including saving lives on the ground as well as in the air.

c. Clean, sharp and mission-optimized video of targets that will allow the image analysts to faster extract more accurate ‘actionable intelligence’ data during their post-mission examination

d. An invaluable help in establishing ISR Operational Procedures.

The cost of a typical simulator is not prohibitive when viewed in the context of the other alternatives:

a. Training the TFOs using expensive flying hours (and using up warranty hours)

b. Training the TFO on the same sensor but using a less expensive (read different) training aircraft

The cost of the simulator should be dictated by its purpose, and should primarily focus on:


a. Total familiarization of the mission sensor with all the capabilities inherent in its specific configuration

b. ‘Eyes-Off Operation’ of the hand controller, to allow the TFO to maintain visual contact with the target at all times

c. Upgrade-ability and customization of the basic simulator hardware with different software packages for:

 Turret sensor/model variations of same brand

 Turrets from different manufacturers

 Construction of mission-specific customized training scenarios

 Inclusion of system-latency in the simulator performance (when using remote control)


d. Compactness and ruggedization for those instances where out-of-country missions need to be supported e. Ability to store the ‘simulator mission flown’

f. Ability to randomly change certain mission parameters to avoid ‘trainee scenario memorization’

g. Ability to have multiple-choice solutions on key operational aspects of the equipment and sensors

h. Ability for superiors to grade mission performance during later review

i. Ability to store individual operator preferences and test results for use during future training sessions

The selection of a simulator should not be dictated by the ‘bells and whistles’ that do not represent the TFOs’ flying experience:

a. Super-large monitors or projectors that are not found in the mission aircraft

b. Super-high resolution screens/processors that represent neither the resolution of the aircraft monitors nor that of the ISR sensors

c. Video-game type fancy hand controllers that are different from the mission equipment

There are two things your simulator choice will not simulate, your present annual cost of training your operators in the air, and the CO2 carbon foot print generated during your present in-flight training…

This article is a summary of the Simulator presentation given by the authors at the Airtec aerospace conference in Munich.

G.Davies is a seasoned satellite controller, microwave downlink and EOIR consultant who is a firm believer that only TFO training can make your equipment live up to its’ full potential.

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