Air Force Eying Single-Pilot KC-46s


The Air Force is considering cutting potential crew casualties by eliminating copilots on KC-46 Pegasus tankers on high-risk missions during war. The Air Force Times is reporting top brass are concerned the big tankers will be sitting ducks for Chinese anti-aircraft missiles in an Indo-Pacific conflict. “Shrinking the number of airmen onboard a tanker could help minimize potential troop casualties while still getting combat jets the fuel they need,” the publication reported. The Air Force has confirmed it’s an idea being considered but no decision has been made.

“The command is currently reassessing minimum flight crew requirements as we explore and validate new tactics, techniques and procedures oriented towards a dynamic, future fight,” Air Mobility Command spokesperson Maj. Hope Cronin told Air Force Times. Eliminating the copilot would leave just the pilot and boom operator on the dicey missions, and the publication says the Air Force isn’t even sure two people can handle the airplane. Cronin told the Air Force Times some kind of waiver would be needed for crews before they can even test the concept.

Some KC-46 pilots aren’t happy with the idea. The Air Force Times reported that social media sites frequented by the pilots erupted with negative comments. Some speculated the idea was borne of a chronic pilot shortage at McConnell Air Force Base (which the Air Force denies) while others said the proposal is hazardous. “This isn’t funny anymore. If true this is gonna get someone killed,” one Instagram poster said.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Seems like a really, really dumb idea. In a combat zone you surely want the additional crew member MORE, not less!

    Should have developed and built a ‘survivable’ transport/tanker a long, long time ago.

  2. Bad ideas like this are what happens when you let the administrators weigh in on operational decisions.

    • It does sound like the sort of thing bureaucrats come up with. If this is something related to the cost of training pilots, maybe they could talk to Congress and point out the constant antagonism towards GA from local government, the IRS, the lawyers, and the FAA is costing us money and readiness. There’s no free lunch. We do not need subsidies either, just some protection from predators.

  3. If the genius(s) who came up with this idea think they have a pilot recruiting problem now then this will give pause to those who would potentially be flying these aircraft in the future. So, if the one pilot is incapacitated then the autopilot would fly and land the plane? As General Honore said after Katrina “Don’t get stuck on stupid.”

  4. If the genius(s) who came up with this idea think they have a pilot recruiting problem now then this will give pause to those who would potentially be flying these aircraft in the future. So, if the one pilot is incapacitated then the autopilot would fly and land the plane? As General Russel Honore said after Katrina “Don’t get stuck on stupid.”

  5. Given the USN’s development of the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray, there are some that think even one pilot is too many.

  6. What a great way to convince all military pilots to leave the service immediately.

  7. Well if I am the boom operator what do I do if the pilot becomes incapacitated — oh I KNOW activate the Garmin auto land system.
    As for the Navy I like the drone tanker and should be looked at by the Air Force.

  8. There are thousands of us, trained, in the retirement community that could do this job just fine. For that matter we can fly any of the transport category aircraft in the armed services and do the job to professional standards.

    God bless.

  9. Who put these folks in charge of anything? Maybe just get some pronouns to fly everything. Maybe let the Generals fly them. They seem to need something important to do because they are wasting their time now.

  10. What a statement it makes. “Guys/gals, good chance you may not be coming back. So we’re going to cover our potential resource loss right now. Nothing personal, but we gotta watch out for our money.” The troops, all the troops realize with their profession an assignment with possible risks can occur. Don’t look forward to it perhaps but also have pride in that they will go out and certainly try their best to get the job, whatever the job accomplished. To remove one of them from the crew is not only aircraft operationally reckless, it implies that the crews are measured in worth by nothing more than a dollar value anyhow, nothing more. If so, then take this job and shove it .

  11. Right or wrong, single pilot ops are coming, it’s just a matter of when. Lots of reasons for it, primarily costs including training. We’ll see medical standards increased and age limits will either stay where they are, or even decrease.

    Military jets have been flying with one pilot for a long, long time. Both with and without ejection seats, including off of aircraft carriers, and that’s where the push will begin.

  12. If it’s actually about lives, then drones might be the trick, but it smells of uniformed bureaucracy to me. Last AF vet I chatted with described a hellish problem with careerism and bureaucratic behavior that has trickled down to the lowest level officers.

  13. This is a terrible idea. I don’t know where today’s military is coming from on these ideas. It is true that the present climate is resulting in force reduction and that includes pilots. The military as a whole needs to regroup and stop the woke nonsense that it finds itself embroiled in, and focus on combat readiness.

  14. And our fellow Air Force wonder why we Marines call them Air Farce. Seriously, who was the CG that thought up this idea? Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and send the individual responsible for this thought process back to AU or ask for retirement. Good lord!

  15. In WW2 RAF Lancaster and Halifax 4 engine bombers operated with just one pilot. The death rate for all aircrew, not just pilots, was 46% Is there a sound policy in reducing the tanker crew to single pilot? As a former 737/747/757/767 captain this would appear a step much too far. Operating a big jet, no matter how clever the automatics, requires the full attention of two pilots up front.

  16. My first thought was that this is a bad idea. However, having flown a multi crew airplane in the Navy, that was often flown single pilot with a Naval Flight Officer in the right seat trained in performing copilot duties, I can see the possibilities here. On combat refueling flights of six hours or less, a trained enlisted crew person could occupy the right seat and handle the duties of copilot. Forty years ago the Navy still had enlisted pilots flying transport aircraft.

  17. I suggest them to try to fly a 76 (or 78) solo in a home sim. If anyone still thinks after that it’s a viable idea, they are unfit for service.

  18. I think we’re missing a huge problem here. The Air Force is tacitly admitting that they can’t protect its tankers. No tankers means no refueling, which leads me to wonder what the untanked ranges of our front line combat aircraft are. I don’t care how “high tech” our combat aircraft are, because no aerial refueling means limited range and a defensive-only combat capability. That’s the opinion of someone who has only the vaguest idea of the capabilities of our current combat aircraft; however, …

  19. I worked with a KC-135 (ex) driver who explained that during the VN conflict they operated sufficiently off-shore that any in-coming enemy would be detected by AWACS and the tanker would turn away and speed further off-shore. The enemy would not be capable of catching them, even if they were super-sonic, before running out of fuel. This was all the protection a tanker needed. What has changed? Do we not have anti-missile capability such as on Air Force One? Do we not have electronic countermeasures? Do we not have protective fighter cover?
    The U.S. has lost it’s Memory: The Soviets defeated Nazi Germany with NUMBERS! Not technology…the Germans had that…. but NUMBERS.
    The U.S. spent a ton of money developing the F16 only to discover that Five F-5s (an armed T38 with similar capability to the typical Soviet fighter of the period) would shoot down an F16.
    The U.S. spends huge dollars on sophisitcated technologically advanced aircraft in the false believe that technology will win-the-day in a conflict. Perhaps…but only in a LIMITED conflict.
    In an all-out war…it will be NUMBERS.
    If the enemy has 100 airplanes with 100 pilots sitting in ejection-seats… and we have 15 or 20 advanced aircraft with 20 pilots sitting in ejection-seats…. it may be expected that half of all ejections will survive to fight again (after the back surgery)….which means we will STILL BE OUTNUMBERED and will LOSE a protracted war simply due to NUMBERS!
    There is only a SALARY SHORTAGE! Solve the sorry low salaries for pilots and there will be plenty of pilots. We need to use more affordable AIRPLANES and spend our money on PILOTS.

    • So stop tyrants earlier.

      Israelis and Ukrainians so well in battle because they are smart, well-trained, and dedicated.

      (In one of the formal wars by Arab states against Israel, its pilot had an advantage of flying lower than opponents.)

  20. So why not arm the beasts?

    The lowly B737 (P8) can launch Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

  21. The fact that they are floating this idea is a harbinger of the big change that is coming. Ukraine has shown us that in the current missile environment, tactics and weapons previously developed and deployed at great cost are no longer feasible. It’s all a function of range and accuracy. Think battleships during WWII. Still relevant but only under very specific circumstances. It seems to me that the answer doesn’t lie in reducing crew below numbers needed to operate the aircraft.

  22. When my son-in-law was a pilot/AC commander for a Navy E 6 communications platform, the crew included about 10 souls and a CNC admiral, and I was always concerned that they were sitting ducks if a war broke out. AA missiles fired from subs that can be anywhere will be just one of the threats. There are numerous lessons to be learned from the current Ukraine situation, and many point to maned A/C becoming obsolete. The navy already has pilotless refueling drones and that should be the future, if there is one.

  23. Drone tankers are long over due. We were flying B17 drones as targets in the 50s. I’m sure we can have a drone tanker. Sims do it all the time.
    China will likely use drones.