Leadership: May 13, 2004

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The U.S. Air Force is on a collision course with the other services over the issue of who should be allowed to "fly" UAVs. The air force insists that all ground controllers for UAVs be officers, as well as conventional pilots (of manned aircraft). All the other services use NCOs to fly the UAVs. Actually, theres not much at stake, other than possibly settling the decades old controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers.

At the start of World War II, the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) and navy both had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs (flying sergeants) selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground. As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (2.4 million troops and 80,000 aircraft at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander (General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. 

When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of flying sergeants by making most pilots Warrant Officers (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their time on their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties.) Many air force pilots envy the army flying Warrants because the Warrant Officers just fly. Thats what most pilots want to do, fly a helicopter or aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a well rounded officer. Many air force pilots dont want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the air force and go work for an airline. But often they stay in the air force reserve, and fly warplanes on weekends, and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route. 

But now the air force has this growing force of UAVs, which are piloted from the ground. Increasingly, as the flight control software improves, the pilots do less piloting and more controlling (sending a few orders to the airborne UAV, and letting the software take care of the rest.) Initially, the fighter and transport pilots grabbed for UAV duty were not happy about it. In addition to losing flight pay, they were not flying. While guiding a Predator or Global Hawk from the ground could have its exiting moments, there was no hiding the fact that you were sitting on the ground staring at a computer monitor most of time. Worse yet, you couldnt feel the aircraft in flight. Pilots know well that this aspect of flying is one of the most enjoyable, exciting, and useful aspects of their job. Being a UAV jockey had none of the fun, challenge, or extra pay of real flying. 

The air force finally decided to give the UAV pilots flight pay, and promise them they could go back to real aircraft after two or three years of UAV work. A fifteen week training course was set up to train pilots to operate UAVs. Since qualified pilots were taking this course, the washout rate only two percent. Some pilots are even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force still considers UAV controller work as a "temporary assignment." UAVs have not yet become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description.

The army is considering using Predator UAVs, and already uses a similar model, the Hunter. The army has NCOs operating their UAVs. Actually, the air force lets NCOs operate the smaller UAVs, but these have control software that only allows the controllers to set a flight pattern, not actually fly the aircraft. 

When the time comes that army sergeants,  as well as air force pilot officers, are both flying Predators, there will not be  a revolution in the air force. But this would make it more politically acceptable (within the air force) to let NCOs operate UAVs. It may come down to a cost issue, and a recognition of the special requirements of UAVs. Unlike the traditional pilot and crew arrangement for aircraft, UAVs are operated by a team. Typically, a Predator is attended to by a pilot and two sensor operators (NCOs), who monitor what the cameras and other sensors are picking up. Because a Predator is often in the air for 24 hours at a time, and is often flying over an active battlefield, and is looking real hard for specific stuff, the crew has to be changed every 4-6 hours to avoid fatigue. Moreover, each Predator unit might have several UAVs in the air at once. What it may come down to is several pilot-officers running the Predator squadrons, but NCOs doing most of the UAV-driving work. This will save the air force a lot of money, and keep pilots doing what they joined the air force for; flying aircraft from a cockpit, not behind a computer monitor. This transition will probably take place quietly, but it will eventually happen, just has it has already happened everywhere but the air force.


 


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