With a nation full of video game addicted young people, who would think that the Air Force is suffering from a critical shortage of drone pilots? Operating a high-tech aircraft by remote control looking for bad guys would seem like a dream job with thousands of hopeful drone pilots lining up too quickly fill any shortage.
Working as a drone pilot is no picnic, however. Unlike video games, there is little excitement associated with the job in spite of the occasional news-making strike. Most of the work is flying to and from their assigned areas, and many hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance work. The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said that a typical drone pilot may fly between 900 and 1,100 hours per year. These are significantly long hours that manned aircraft pilots who may fly 200 or 300 hours per year. In addition to this, many drone pilots work 13-hour days for six days per week. Pilots also realize that the work is not at all like video games since their actions may result in real deaths. Mistakes, then, are always on pilots’ minds. The stress, long periods of boredom, and long hours are causing a significant loss of pilots from the drone programs.
Ironically, the Air Force had planned to downsize the number of drone pilots. The shortage occurred unexpectedly when the U.S. expanded its drone missions in Iraq and Syria. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and the shortage is becoming critical.
Air Force Times reports that Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said, “The biggest problem is training. We can only train about 180 people a year, and we need 300 a year trained – and we’re losing about 240 from the community each year. Training 180 and losing 240 is not a winning proposition for us.”
As to the training limitations, Welsh said, “The reason is because we are only 63 percent manned in our RTU, our training unit for RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft], because we can’t release the people from the operational units who are flying the operational support to go be training instructors. And even the people in the training units who are there, about half of them daily are flying operational support missions.”
The pilot shortage will be further aggravated later this year according to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. James addressed the shortage at a news conference at the Pentagon. In order to increase the number of drone pilots, the Air Force established the 18x career track. The 18x track was created for pilots only qualified to fly unmanned drones. With a six-year commitment, the first trained pilots are about to complete their obligations this fiscal year.
James said at the news conference, “Many of our experienced operators are nearing the end of their active-duty service commitment, which means they will have a choice in the not-too-distant future to either stay with us or leave the Air Force.” James said that drone pilots suffer from “significant stress” during missions as a result of an “unrelenting pace of operations.”
For this reason, James has proposed raising the monthly flight pay for 18X RPA pilots if they stay beyond their six-year commitment. The flight pay would be increased from a maximum of $650 to $1,500 if they remain. Other incentives are being considered as well. Additionally, there are plans to use personnel from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve to fly more RPA missions. The Air Force is also asking pilots presently flying drones who plan to return to manned flight to delay their departure from the program.
With the military drone shortage becoming critical, the Air Force will need to take strong measures in the training and salaries to encourage the retention of pilots in the RPA programs.