August 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 4 
Cover Story

A UCAV test pilotís perspective

A UCAV test pilot’s perspective

Mark Witsken, a Boeing Integrated Defense Systems Unmanned Aerial Vehicles high-performance test pilot and a captain in the California Air National Guard, joined Boeing in 2003 after having served four years as a United Airlines pilot and nearly 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. As an X-45A test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., he told Boeing Frontiers what it’s like to “fly” an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). He also shared his personal perspectives about the future of flight.

Q: As an experienced pilot of manned aircraft, how do you feel about “fly-by-mouse” piloting a UCAV?

A: My visual, audio and seat-of-the-pants cues are gone. I miss being part of the three-dimensional “wild blue”—flying in the clouds, putting bombs on target, matching my dogfighting skills against a squadron buddy. My next thought is how lucky I am to have a hand in the development and test of the most advanced jet in the world. There is plenty of risk in UAV (unmanned air vehicle) flight test—different than manned flight test—but it’s still there. And where there is risk, there are rewards. It’s an awesome feeling to be part of history.

Q. The X-45A’s goal is to keep pilots out of harm’s way in dangerous battle areas. How do you feel about this?

A: This is a great goal. When I was younger, I loved the thought of proving myself in the face of danger. After a few years of experience, I realized that this was an ignorant perspective. It’s tough to enjoy life and family if you’re captured, wounded or dead, so keeping pilots out of harm’s way is fantastic. It’s not as much of an adrenaline rush as being there, but there are other ways to get the adrenaline pumping.

Q: How do you think the UCAV will change the role of a pilot?

A: It will keep pilots safe in high-threat areas. With today’s video games, people will think there’s nothing to flying a UAV and that anyone with a little computer experience can do it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to be a pilot to understand flight path geometry, flight conditions, airplane systems, airspace, etc. I think pilots, as we know them today, will still be required to fly the UCAV, but they will also require a mindset change from manned aircraft.

Q: Do you think fighter pilots will welcome the UCAV concept?

A: I think once the UCAV proves itself, they will at first accept it, then learn to integrate with it and eventually come to like it and the job it does.

Q: In your opinion, what does the X-45 mean to the future of flight and warfare?

A: I think it is the beginning of next-generation UAV use for both military and commercial purposes. To the warfighter, the X-45 is a force multiplier. It does the dangerous jobs while preserving lives. It’s like having an improved version of the stealth bomber for a fraction of the cost. I think it will have commercial uses as well. The technology could easily be transferred into use on freighter, firefighting and police surveillance aircraft, for example. I know those uses are a ways off, but some are in our future.

Q: What does the X-45 program mean for Boeing and its leadership position in defining the future of flight?

A: Smart UAVs are the future of aviation. Boeing is taking the bull by the horns and leading the charge. We stand out to the world because we are doing so well on the X-45 program.

—Katherine Sopranos


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