Specialized Program Wants Candidates With No Military Flight
The urgent need for more personnel
capable of operating unmanned aerial vehicles has led the US Air
Force to launch two new training programs... including one bound to
raise eyebrows in the fighter pilot community.
The Associated Press reports an experimental program aims to
train as many as 1,100 new pilots to operate UAVs over Iraq and
Afghanistan. To accommodate so many trainees, those personnel will
be trained only in the basics of operating small aircraft; they
won't need to meet the far more rigorous requirements that pilots
of manned fighter aircraft must go through.
For example, UAV pilots would not need to meet height or vision
requirements... nor would they be necessarily disqualified from
service for physical conditions that would inhibit them from
operating high-performance aircraft, such as the inability to fly
at high altitudes.
Col. Curt Sheldon, assistant to the director of air operations
for UAS issues, says Air Force officials are seeking up to 20
captains with four to six years of experience to volunteer for the
unmanned aircraft systems beta test program. Qualified candidates
may have civilian flight experience, but no military pilot
After nine months of UAV-specific training, graduates of the
program would earn their "wings," so to speak... though only on
To date, the US Air Force has only recruited experienced pilots
of manned fighter aircraft -- those with at least one tour of duty
-- to fly UAVs... a process that has slowed implementation of UAV
deployment. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has criticized the USAF
for its more deliberate pace.
Sheldon admits more pilots are needed to fill out the Air
Force's goal of implementing 50 UAV combat patrols, 24 hours a day,
by September 2011. Thirty such patrols now operate, largely over
Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don't know that you could ever get (a drone) to everybody who
wants one," Sheldon said. "I believe it is virtually insatiable. We
are pedaling fast, we are working hard to meet that need."
As ANN reported last month, the experimental
program will run concurrently with the Air Force's efforts to ramp
up its efforts to retrain fighter pilots to operate unmanned aerial
vehicles. Eventually, the Air Force hopes to send as many as 100
experienced pilots through the drone program per year, through
"The pipeline that produces manned operators is full," Sheldon
added. "We're pushing them through there as fast as we can."
Sheldon downplays the notion that UAV-only pilots would be
less-qualified than their brethren coming out of the fighter corps.
He notes it isn't particularly difficult to fly an F-16 from one
spot to another; the finesse comes in learning how to deploy
"It's not particularly difficult to fly a (drone) from point A
to point B," said Sheldon. "It is challenging to fly it in a combat
environment, coordinating with a guy on the ground who wants you to
hit a target over here that's got (friendly) folks only 50 meters