What's the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase "RPAV (Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicle) Operator"? The IAF's RPAV units began their journey in the IAF many years ago. However, they have just recently been exposed to the public eye. The RPAV Operator's role is to operate an aircraft from the control station.
In the majority of missions, two crew members sit in the station - an operator and the Mission Commander. The commander is responsible for piloting the aircraft and for communicating with the relevant factor working with the team. The operator is responsible for executing the mission by operating the payload - a camera installed on the aircraft for intelligence gathering purposes.
Since the RPAV has autonomous capabilities, most of the crew's efforts are put to managing and executing the mission.
We met with Lt. A, an RPAV Operator from the "Black Snake" squadron, which operates Hermes 450 aircraft, developed by the Israeli company Elbit, to find out more about the role of RPAV Operators.
-- What are the missions of the IAF's RPAV Units?
"Each RPAV can carry payload. There are several types of payload, which execute intelligence gathering and video operations. During a mission, we see direct real-time imagery shot by the RPAV's cameras. One of the missions we execute frequently includes intelligence gathering about our enemies or targets", explains Lt. A. "Besides, we always have an eye-in-the-sky. We're always on-call, and throughout all hours of the day and in all theatres - an aircraft is airborne".
-- What are the Training Stages of RPAV Operators?
"Most operators reach the RPAV Operators Course after their participation in the Flight Course has been discontinued after a year or more. An exceptional officer in the IAF can also reach the course, and one could also reach it through the IDF's Artillery Corps. The course takes about six months to complete and focuses on the basics and foundations of operating the RPAV and payload", details Lt. A. "After completing the course, the cadets continue to their OTC (Operational Training Course), which takes about three months. The OTC focuses on bridging between the basic knowledge the cadets acquired during their course and the operational reality. At the end of it, the cadets are split to the operational squadrons and begin their operational service".
-- What's Challenging About the Role?
"The role divides to two years in the squadron, two years of service in the IAF's HQ (while still being an on-call operator), and an additional year in the squadron. In my opinion, you experience most challenges during your service in the squadron. There's a heavy workload since RPAV squadrons have crucial importance in every operational event", describes Lt. A. "We work in shifts which reverse our way of life. During later hours, the challenge of remaining vigilant empowers. Each shift is approximately four hours in length, during which we must remain extremely focused and maintain high levels of tension. At times, you could find yourself in a shift after already completing another in the same day. In some unusual cases, shifts can be longer, because you can't overlap the next crew due to the mission's complexity".
-- What does Serving in this Role Mean for You?
"I've always wanted to serve in a role where I feel like I'm executing the mission myself. Since RPAV squadrons remain connected to many missions as well as to the operational scene, an operator can find himself executing several operational missions a week. When you complete the mission and exit the control station, you see stories about the mission you just executed in the media", shares Lt. A. "When I sit around the dinner table with my family and talk about the week I've had, I can't say much. In my eyes, being an RPAV Operator means understanding the meaning of your role without enjoying its 'glory'. The role is very satisfying and mentally challenging. I always feel like I'm trying hard, that I shoulder great responsibility, and that I'm counted on".
-- How does Cooperation Between the Operator and the Mission Commander Work?
"It's difficult to discuss cooperation between crew members to an outsider. It's a connection you don't experience outside of the control station. Quality cooperation occurs only when egos of both operators don't play a role. Otherwise, things can go wrong", mentioned Lt. A. "The mission crew must function like one person executing two different roles. One must understand the other's needs as well as what's required of him. The crew cooperates optimally to execute the mission".
-- What Goes Through Your Head When Executing an Operational Mission?
"In a mission, you're sharp, focused, and always thinking a step ahead - what could stump you? What do you need to execute the mission optimally? Additionally, you must inspect the mission's commander, to ensure everything happens according to plan", describes Lt. A. "When entering a mission, that's the only thing that matters".
When we're shown major operations in the course, and told: "tomorrow, you'll all be in the control station", It always seems far off. You think these are unusual events, but in no time you're the one executing them. Doing things you never imagined were possible. I believe that matures you and changes your perspective - everything seems logical and accomplishable", shared Lt. A.