• 50 Years - A Million Thanks
WARPLANE: A Century of Military Aviation Advances
Parts One and Two: Wednesday, November 8th, 9-11pm   |   Parts Three and Four: Wednesday, November 15, 9-11pm


Colonel (retired) Robert C. "Bob" Ettinger has had one of the most distinguished careers in aviation as a combat pilot, test pilot and aerospace industry executive. After 130 combat missions in Vietnam, Col. Ettinger became a test pilot for the US Air Force and was the first person to fly the General Dynamics F-16 Flying Falcon, a small, lightweight fighter that is now one of the Air Force's workhorse combat aircraft.

Currently Col. Ettinger serves as Northrop Grumman Corporation's Manager of Flight Test for the company's Global Hawk program. The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a sophisticated, long-range, high-flying reconnaissance UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that has proven its worth over Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this interview, Col. Ettinger talks about the genesis of the F-16, the Global Hawk's background and capabilities, and the role that UAVs have to play in the future of military aviation.


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Let's talk about the F-16. The conventional wisdom that US fighters like the F-4 were getting hammered in Vietnam by cheaper, more agile Soviet-built aircraft, and the pilots wanted something cheap and agile to fight MiGs on their own terms. Is this accurate?

Yes. When the acquisition of the F-15 came along, the Air Force hadn't had a new fighter of its own for about 20 years, and they were bound and determined that they would not fail with their new F-15 program. They decided to allow only a reasonable amount of development risk in two areas -- the radar and the engine. The rest of the aircraft was to be conventional technology.

When the F-15 RFP [Request for Proposal] came out, General Dynamics proposed a high technology version of the F-15. This version included a fly-by-wire flight control system, relaxed static stability, side stick, slope back seat and a single piece windshield/canopy. The Air Force decided that they couldn't take the development risk on the F-15 of all that General Dynamics proposed. However, certain elements in the Air Force saw the potential of the technology improvements proposed by General Dynamics, and after the F-15 Program was off and running, they proposed a Technology Demonstration of a new Light Weight Fighter concept. Seven aircraft companies responded with eight different aircraft proposals. Two aircraft were selected to participate in the Technology Demonstration -- General Dynamics with the YF-16 and Northrop with the YF-17.

The European countries of Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium wanted a new multi-role fighter, and they agreed to participate with the US in the development of a new fighter aircraft. So the Light Weight Fighter Technology Demonstration Program became the Multi-role Air Combat Fighter Source Selection Progam.

When the USAF selected a version of the YF-16 for production, General Dynamics went ahead with the design and manufacture of the F-16. When the Navy selected a version of the YF-17 for their advanced fighter, McDonnell became the prime contractor for F-18. Northrop continued to be responsible for the design and manufacture of the center section of the F-18 fuselage.

It started out as a very spartan airplane, right? It didn't have the capacity for radar-guided missiles, for example.

Yes. Originally, the F-16 was thought to be too small to carry several AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. As time and technology had moved on, modern electronics could produce a small, lightweight, air-to-air radar that performed better than what we had in the F-4.

The F-16 radar was excellent for finding targets for the heat-seeking Aim-9 Sidewinder missile. The F-16 radar also had some excellent air-to-ground modes. When the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, the AMRAAM, came along, it was easily added to the F-16, giving it an all-weather air-to-air capability.

It's also interesting that the F-16 started out as a pure fighter, but now its role is primarily air-to-ground.

Yes. Even though the F-16 is used primarily for air-to-ground missions today, I would still hate to get in a dogfight with one. It is still an impressive air-to-air aircraft. When the European countries got involved, they wanted a multi-role, air-to-air and air-to ground aircraft. The design technologies that make a good air-to-air aircraft, high thrust to weight and low wing loading, are also important to the design of an air-to-ground aircraft. So the Lightweight Fighter became the Multi-role Air Combat Fighter.

Tell me some more about the Global Hawk and its mission. Is it fair to say that it basically has the same role as the U-2 (ie, strategic reconnaissance)?

It started out with the idea of being a U-2-type strategic reconnaissance aircraft. The reconnaissance mission is a good role for an unmanned airplane; you have an idea of where you want to go, what targets you want to exploit, and you can program it in advance to take off and autonomously fly the mission. The U-2 is actually preprogrammed to take pictures of planned targets and the pilot's job is to fly along the planned course. Even though it is a manned aircraft, the U-2 does not have much flexibility in flight.

In actual combat over Iraq, the Global Hawk has become more flexible than the U-2. Originally we had a planned flight route that would go back and forth across the target area, sort of like you were mowing the lawn, to cover all the targets in Iraq. In combat we found that there was always an important target such as ground troops in enemy contact that needed reconnaissance photos right now. So we would override the preplanned navigation route and photo-gathering plan to steer the Global Hawk to the new high-priority target.

Today, we are continually overriding the preplanned mission plan to quickly cover the highest-priority target requests.

What are some of the primary differences between operating a Predator and operating a Global Hawk?

The Predator pilots actually have a stick, rudder, pedals, and a throttle to remotely fly the aircraft manually for takeoff and landing. When the Predator is airborne, they turn the aircraft over to an autopilot that flies the preprogrammed route. Like with the Global Hawk, they can override the preplanned route to cover targets as required.

The Global Hawk is more automated. When the pilot wants to taxi, he just selects "taxi" with his mouse on the screen, then selects "execute," and the Global Hawk starts autonomously taxiing on a preprogrammed route. When the Global Hawk gets to the last taxi waypoint or the takeoff waypoint, it autonomously stops and waits for the pilot to select "takeoff" and "execute." Once the pilot executes "takeoff" with his mouse, the plane takes off.

The Global Hawk will fly autonomously on a preprogrammed route all the way to Australia and land without further pilot intervention. But if the pilot wants to take unplanned photos of Hawaii en route, he can override the mission plan and send to the aircraft a new course to cover the desired targets in Hawaii. When the pilot is ready to resume his mission to Australia, he gives the aircraft a GO TO command to a waypoint on the original mission plan, and the aircraft autonomously completes the planned mission.

The Predator generally flies at a lower altitude than the Global Hawk. It makes great use of sensors that are similar to the television cameras on the news helicopters. The Predator can also carry Hellfire missiles so it can find, identify, and take out targets. The USAF has chosen not to arm the Global Hawk, relying on it for only high-altitude reconnaissance.

What do you see as the future of UAVs? Will they be taking over traditional roles such as bombing, air-to-air, etc. in the near future?

The challenge with an unmanned combat aircraft is being able to have a human involved in the target selection. You wouldn't want a machine to shoot down a fighter that was on our side. Generally the rules have been that you have to have a person who can see what the target is and confirm that it is the right one. So you have a real challenge of having enough command-and-control links to have a person involved in the decision to release a weapon. The airplane would have to be autonomous to find a target and relay the target selected back to a human and then get an okay to attack.

When it comes to tasks that UAVs can take over, we like to think in terms of the three Ds -- Dumb, Dull, and Dangerous.

Take the P3 Orion antisubmarine/surveillance aircraft, for instance. One was forced down by a collision with a Chinese fighter, and 24 crew members were at risk. An unmanned version of the Global Hawk could have been performing that mission with those 24 crew members sitting in Guam or San Diego and not at risk.

So do you think the future is all-UAV or a mix and match?

I think it's reasonable to expect unmanned aircraft to take on more and more of the action, but I don't think they'll ever completely replace manned aircraft. It might be possible to have manned aircraft leading several unmanned aircraft in a "hen and chickens" sort of approach. It would be nice to be flying a manned bomber and have a swarm of unmanned aircraft protect you from enemy defenses.

Unmanned aircraft can be lighter, more agile, and they can pull more Gs than manned aircraft. So in a dogfight with a manned aircraft, the unmanned aircraft is going to win.

There are also some commercial roles that seem ideally suited for unmanned airplanes -- for instance, the package deliverers like FedEx and UPS. Their aircraft take off every evening from their home base and fly to a sort center. They spend three or four hours on the ground and then fly back to their home location. That would be a perfect mission for an unmanned airplane. One or two pilots on the ground could monitor the performance of five or six unmanned aircraft performing that mission.

It would be hard to conceive of airline passengers putting their lives in the hands of an unmanned airplane, though.

Well, when I was a kid and you went to a big building in the city, there was always an operator in the elevators. My kids have never seen an elevator operator. You can go to an airport and people get on an unmanned train without hesitation to travel at 60 miles per hour to another terminal. Today, people don't even flinch about riding an unmanned elevator or a train. So maybe 50 years from now, unmanned or unpiloted airliners might be commonplace.

I would like to say that today the Global Hawk flies like an aircraft on railroad tracks in the sky. On the same mission plan, it flies to the same spot at the same altitude, day after day. Even though it's got more degrees of freedom than that elevator or a train, it actually performs as though it's on three-dimensional rails in the sky.

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