“Off we go into the wild blue yonder” will take a significant turn as the military plans to grow its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles from about 100 to about 370, and its roster of non-flying pilots from about 450 to 1,100, by 2011. Those figures will make UAV pilots a major stakeholder in the Air Force’s campaigns, ahead of the group of C-17 pilots and second only to F-16 drivers. Attracting applicants to ground-based piloting offers its own challenges, as does the required volume of personnel, the proposed three-year window for applicant acquisition and training, the training methodology that will create pilots that meet FAA standards without ever being trained in aircraft, and formal details of the non-flying pilot position itself. The Air Force will open two new training centers next year in hopes of producing 300 qualified drone pilots over a four-month period and is developing all-new channels for the new career path and a new way of waging war. Any of those non-flying pilots might one day attack targets in Afghanistan during the day and eat dinners at home in Nevada each evening. Hopefully, their enemies won’t follow them there.
Where previously the military had rotated flying pilots from manned to unmanned aircraft duty, a first batch of 20 applicants is now being sought from officers ranking at least captain with four to six years’ commissioned experience for non-flying pilot positions. The Air Force is already working out the details (from what wings they’ll wear to what pay) for a drone pilot career track available to non-pilot officers who have never flown in an aircraft that is under their command. So far, enlisted airmen will not be considered for larger Predator and Reaper drones, but they may be responsible for smaller “micro” air surveillance vehicles, like the Desert Hawk and Scan Eagle.