Warplanes: USAF Bites the Bullet on UAV Pilots


March 23, 2007: The U.S. Air Force is creating a new job specialty, UAV pilots. Starting later this year, the air force will recruit people for this job. The details are still being worked out, but it will be an officer position. The army uses NCOs to pilots its UAVs, which are generally smaller than those used by the air force. The new air force program expects to attract those who had applied to be regular pilots, but had been denied because of minor physical faults (eyesight not sharp enough being the most common). But the air force is also aware that the current crop of recruits are the X-Box generation. They grew up on video games, and the military has already found that all those thousands of hours wasted (according to parents) playing video games, developed skills that are quite useful in the military.

UAV pilots may be required to have a commercial, single engine, pilot license. This would give UAV pilots practical experience in an aircraft of roughly the same size and flying characteristics as a Predator. Otherwise, classroom instruction will be almost identical to what pilots of manned aircraft get. Flight instruction, however, will take place on a customized version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MFS), which will emulate the Predator (and perhaps other UAVs as well). The air force was satisfied that MFS had an accurate enough flight model to be used for UAV pilot instruction.

The three month Undergraduate Remote Pilot Training (URT) will initially have five students, but will rise to 30 students in a year or so, and eventually turn out 120 pilots a year. After URT, UAV pilots (who will get wings) will get two or three months instruction on Predator or Global Hawk aircraft.

Currently, the air force is getting about two pilots applying for each opening for UAV pilots. That's because the air force is downsizing, and a lot of pilots are faced with retraining on another aircraft, trying a few years of UAV work, or leaving the air force. However, few pilots of manned aircraft want to make a career of operating UAVs. The new training program for UAV pilots will be for people who are stick with UAVs until retirement. At the moment, the UAV pilots appear to have brighter long range career prospects than the folks flying manned aircraft. It will take about a decade before all the UAV operators are people with no prior experience in manned aircraft.


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