Warplanes: UAV Jocks Get Respect


February 25, 2008: A year ago, the U.S. Air Force created a new job specialty, UAV pilots. Before that, it was just "temporary duty" for underemployed fighter pilots. Late last year, the air force began recruiting people to be career UAV operators. 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.

Classroom instruction is 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) is training 30 students a year, and in two years will be turning out over a hundred pilots a year. After URT, UAV pilots (who will get wings) will get two or three months instruction on Predator or Global Hawk aircraft. There are also now UAV classes and a school for senior air force officers.

The air force also created a sensor operator job category for the enlisted troops who work with UAV operators. Until now, the airmen who operated the cameras on UAVs were given the imagery analyst job title. This made little sense, but it was just an improvisation. But now UAVs are a career path, and many air force officers and troops see it as the future.

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 forced to choose between 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. In the meantime, every fighter and transport pilot who has done a three year tour as a UAV operator, acquires a database entry showing a "secondary skill" as a UAV operator so that, when they return to their F-15 cockpit, they can be recalled if there is an emergency need for more UAV jocks.


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