I absolutely love your podcast and have been meaning to write in for some time, so when you discussed the MQ-9 engine failure on takeoff story in episode 1028, I immediately had many comments and additional info from my wheelhouse to provide you fine fellows!
While all of the comments and opinions below are my own and do not, in any way, represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, I do happen to have a lot of MQ-9 experience. I am an MQ-9 instructor & evaluator pilot with over 1,500 total hours in the Reaper and am also an Air Force Safety Center (AFSEC) Aviation Mishap Investigator.
Your reactions to the story in are spot-on: many MQ-9 pilots find the cockpit’s ergonomic layout to be very sub-optimal, especially regarding the control pedestal layout. The reference you make to there being FAA-standardized controls design (knobs being function-specific shape, color, etc.) is true, but it does not, unfortunately, apply to the MQ-9, as it is not an FAA-certified aircraft (which has and continues to cause many headaches for MQ-9 operations in the U.S., not least of which includes requiring certificates of authorization for flights in non-restricted airspace—but I digress). Since the cockpit was not required to be designed to FAA standards, the engineers were free to design it however they saw fit, and they chose to go for a multi-use compromise (ergonomics and human factors be damned): each seat has identical hardware designed to function as either a pilot or sensor operator workstation (which literally gives the racks their name “PSO workstation”: “pilot/sensor operator workstation”) at the press of a button.
In the above image you can see the Block 15 (“old”-er) cockpit, and the identical controls on both sides (pilot: left, SO: right). The control levers, from left to right, are flap lever, condition lever, throttle, and engine speed lever. As you can see, the flap and condition levers are indeed very close to each other, both black knobs ~1" wide, although they are different shapes: the flap lever’s knob is circular and the condition lever’s knob is a crown shape. This still is not enough of a physical or visual distinction to prevent inadvertent movement: I’ve instructed many, many students (and other instructors) who have accidentally moved the flap lever full aft instead of the condition lever when practicing EPs in the sim, or vice versa, pilots moving the condition lever when intending to add or remove flaps during pattern work (again, and luckily, I've only experienced that in the sim). The only two times the flap lever is used in normal operations is to set 15º of flaps during pre-takeoff, then to set 0º flaps after takeoff. (All normal landings are with 0º flaps.) While I am nearly certain there are many instances of a pilot inadvertently moving the condition lever to fuel-cutoff in flight, I do recall at least one other instance that resulted in a damaged or destroyed aircraft when a pilot’s sleeve cuff caught the condition lever while moving the throttle and inadvertently shut off the engine. Jeb is absolutely correct that it’s bad engineering. The good news is that the design of the controls is the subject of a number of safety board recommendations for change. The bad news is that, personally, I believe there’s far too much standing in the way (money, logistics, politics, etc.) for it to be changed any time soon.
I hope that adds some valuable or at least interesting information to the story!
Travis “Rolex” C
PS – Minor soapbox: we (ok, speaking only for myself) I greatly prefer to distinguish MQ-9s from “drones” as “remotely piloted aircraft” is a far more accurate description since, barring malfunctions or abnormal situations, there is always someone piloting it, just in a cockpit on the ground instead of in the jet. The Reaper (& the MQ-1 Predator before it) is operationally employed much more like and has far more in common with other military aircraft—like, say, an F-16 or A-10—than with “drones” like quadcopters or aerial target drones. And the crew member sitting in the left seat is very much a “pilot” (as opposed to an “operator”): we go through the same type of training & qualification program as “traditional” pilots, have the same type of recurring training requirements as “traditional” pilots, and have to fly our aircraft within the same rules & regulations as “traditional” pilots. (I personally don’t believe there is enough of a difference between 11U and 18X RPA pilots for the USAF to make the distinction, but that’s a whole other can of worms!)
Ok, off my soapbox! Thanks again for the fantastic podcast & keep up the great work!