Air Force Looks Beyond Officers to Boost Drone-Pilot Ranks.


New York (AirGuideBusiness - Business & Industry Features) The U.S. military's increasing demand for drones has forced changes in the Air Force's "flyboy" culture over the years, plucking pilots out of the cockpit and sending some to high-tech desert trailers to operate remotely piloted aircraft, leaving their proverbial white scarves at home. As the need keeps rising for drones and their valuable ISR-intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance-due to the rise of Islamic State and other threats, the Air Force is embarking on yet another cultural shift. For the first time, it is allowing enlisted personnel, not just officers, to pilot some drones. The Air Force historically has required drone pilots to be officers. But this month, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced a series of moves to alleviate some of the stress on the drone crews that operate craft such as the MQ-1 Predator and its advanced cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper. A decision to open the career field by allowing enlisted personnel to operate drones has been much anticipated. Ms. James took a baby step, announcing that by next year, enlisted airmen could fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, a $130 million, 50-foot, unarmed and remotely piloted aircraft that plays a critical role in providing ISR around the world. The move might pave the way for enlisted airmen to play a larger role in other drone platforms, officials said. "As far as I'm concerned, the enlisted force can do anything, as long as they get the proper training to do it," Ms. James said in a recent interview in her Pentagon E-Ring office. The Air Force faced retention, morale and training issues as its limited force of drone operators-all officers-attempted to fulfill the demand for more operations. Ms. James said the Air Force needed to be creative. "We need more people infused into the system," she said. The change comes as the U.S. military overall contends with budget and personnel cuts. The Air Force move is a significant shift for a service that has appeared to resist it. Some in the ranks still worry that allowing enlisted airmen to fly drones could diminish the prestige of a job for which the Air Force was already struggling to create an allure. Many officers arrive with dreams of flying F-15s, F-16s and other, newer fighters, in the spirit of the World War I-era officer considered the father of the Air Force, Army Gen. Billy Mitchell. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and operations in North Africa and...

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