As Drones Take Over, the Air Force Finds Its Pilots of the Future
Policy + Politics

As Drones Take Over, the Air Force Finds Its Pilots of the Future

© Patrick Fallon / Reuters

Drone warfare can be intense and the level of “burnout” is high, so as the dynamics of war in the sky shifts, the Air Force is making thousands of more airmen eligible to operate remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs).

Related: America's Air Force Drone Pilots Are Burning Out

A change in rules yesterday means that more than 87,000 enlisted personnel – up from about 4,000 – can now apply to be trained as drone pilots, according to the Air Force Times.

A number of restrictions still apply: The program is open only to airmen who are staff sergeants to senior master sergeants and they must be on active duty for six years after they are trained as drone pilots. And the Air Force isn’t looking to cannibalize itself, so those trained in aerospace and missile maintenance or nuclear weapons needed to get clearance to apply, the Air Force Times said.

But the drift becomes ever clearer: The role of RPAs in the Air Force is getting wider and deeper by the day. And the opening up of pilot eligibility is really about supply and demand.

A year ago, both the Air Force and the Army got in trouble on Capitol Hills for allowing RPA pilots to operate drones before they had completed their training. A Government Accounting Office report found that in the sample of units examined, only 35 percent of pilots had “completed the training for all of their required missions.”

Part of the problem, as The New York Times explained in a story in July 2015 about burnout, is that the Air Force was only training about 180 drone pilots a year while 240 out of 1,260 working were not planning to remain in that capacity once their six-year stints were up.

Related: Game of Drones: The Air Force Ramps Up Video Game Warfare

By enormously expanding the pool of airmen eligible to be at the controls of video warfare, the Air Force will be able to expand the pilot pipeline and also increase the number of units at its disposal.

The Air Force Times said that by 2020, there could be as many as 100 enlisted personnel flying RQ4-Global Hawks, an unmanned aircraft used primarily for surveillance.