Standards keep young pilots from manning drones

Published 9:37 am Monday, November 9, 2015

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Megan Halek could be the best unmanned aircraft pilot coming out of the University of North Dakota’s highly regarded aviation program this year: She’s aced a training program and has enough air experience to fly private jets worldwide.

That won’t be enough to land her dream job, flying the Predator drone for the United States Customs and Border Protection.

Though she would enthusiastically take on a job that currently falls to federal pilots who’d mostly rather be up in the air, she’s more than 1,300 hours short of the federal agency’s required actual flight time and doesn’t have the proper flying certificate.

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“The CBP has their standards, and rightly so. They’re looking for qualified people,” said UND aviation professor John Bridewell, who is Halek’s faculty adviser. “But at some point you have to question if there’s a tradeoff between someone who simply has hours and this particular certificate versus someone who has capabilities and wants to be there.”

Officials said they are looking at changing their hiring practices — especially since the majority of its pilot workforce is made up of baby-boomer federal agents that must retire at 57— but could not discuss specifics. Other agencies that fly drones, like some branches of the military,