Nobody wants to fly drones

Sep 06 2013 - 18 Comments
By Jacek Siminski

The U.S. Air Force faces a personnel crisis when it comes to the drone pilots.

In a report published for the Brookings Institution think tank, Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland said UAV recruitment offices does not get a sufficient number of volunteers.

Back in 2008 only 3% of flying crew were related to drones. Last year the number reached 8,5%. Still more are needed because the sorties is on the rise.

The UAV fleet of the USAF constitutes of 152 Predators, 96 Reapers and 23 Global Hawks HALE airframes.

But there is little request for drones assignments and the amount the rate of drone pilots resigning or retiring is 3 times higher than that recorded among pilots flying traditional aircraft.

Speaking of the report it lists out several factors that might have an influence on the problems present in the USAF.

Firstly, it is the resignation rate.

Secondly, the drones are flown more and more intensely, as it is a totally new technology which undergoes intense development.

Thirdly the profession does not offer sufficient career opportunities.

Last but not least a factor is also that drone pilots do not get the historical recognition, as it is the UAV, not its operator in Nevada, that gets the recognition for achieving given success in the battlefield.

Back in the February, Pentagon created a new Distinguished Warfare Medal, specifically for the drone pilots or cyber warfare specialists.

It did not last long. The medal was scrapped after veteran groups protested about its being too high a distinction.

Col. Hoagland also believes that the recruitment process could be made better.  In his interview with NBC news he said:

The thrill of taking off from a runway, flying a mission and then coming back and landing at the end of the mission — that’s very exciting, but I think that’s a different type of person who can do that, than someone who is maybe wired to fly an unmanned system from a console 7,000 miles away. It’s a different psychological makeup requirement to execute the mission.

The USAF psychological researchers still struggle to define what the right stuff  for a drone pilot is. There is a detailed psychological report available, addressing the issue of psychological profile of a drone pilot. It is available here.

The report lists several factors that are characteristic traits for the drone operators.

Firstly, they posses visualy oriented cognitive setup. In other words their visual intelligence, according to the Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences model is developed the most, together with auditory intelligence, as the sound is also a crucial factor when piloting a drone.

The second feature is that they are field independent, therefore they are able to multitask and focus for a long time, processing the data quickly and without any distractions.

In other words, a drone pilot should be team oriented, whereas a typical fighter pilot is rather aggressive and depends on his own decisions.Nevertheless it is most certain that the recruitment process for the drone operators must be reviewed and changed, because despite the differences the USAF psychological screening procedures still remains the same for both kinds of service.

Hoagland came up with some changes that were already suggested to the Pentagon. The USAF procedure of washing out is test called the Pilot Candidate Scoring Method.

What is not said is that not all pilot candidates  are given the exam, due to the fact that The Air Force Academy, for example started administering it, and only on an “experimental” basis, just recently.

Hoagland claims that the standardized test would be a step ahead in selecting candidates for drone pilots, as the scores might be an indicator that would select some candidates for an F-16 and some for a drone. More importantly the psychomotor and psychological profiles of the candidate is not used in a selection problem.

The tests just wash out people who are not capable of being a pilot, and do not have any influence on what kind of aircraft the candidate is going to fly.

Let’s face it – drones are the future of the air warfare. Last September Gen. Mark Welsh said that “In the next 20-30 years these things are going to explode.” reffering to the drone programmes.

The quote was used in the Wired report on the sequestration cuts in the drone program, as it will experience a cut of $866 million in 2014’s total budget of $1.3 billion for drone research.

In the light of the abovementioned issues it is rather a personnel problem than a technology that will limit the drone operations in the USAF. It might be speculated that this will have an immense effect on development of the drones that would fight and take decisions in an  autonomous manner. This might also mean that a single pilot would not be assigned to a single drone, but to a swarm of the aircraft. And this is a completely unknown territory, at least in the pilot psychology dimension.

On the other hand though, none of the reports addresses the moral issues of flying a drone, and dealing with the fact that the killing act is done from a safe, remote location somewhere in Nevada, something that has been discussed since the beginning of the Drone Revolution…

Jacek Siminski for The Aviationist

Image credit: U.S. Air Force


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  • SD

    Who fly the drones is not a pilot anymore, it’s just an operator… You can’t take a pilot from a Fighter Squadron and put him behind a computer to direct a drone, like the US Air Force is doing. All the training of the pilot would be simply vanified.

  • gunnergoz

    The shortage is the Air Force’s own fault. They refuse to open the drone operator career field to enlisted and insist that operators be officers. They have untold numbers of enlisted who would jump at the chance, but refuse to do so out of some elitist mentality to preserve the domain of the pilots who dominate the Air Force command structure. The other services allow enlisted drone operators and have no problem manning the positions…for less money, even.

  • AEClark

    “The medal was scrapped after veteran groups protested about its being to high a distinction.”

    …too high a distinction…

    • Jacek Siminski

      Sorry for the Typos…

  • AEClark

    “It might be speculated that this will have an immense effect on
    development of the dromes that would fight and take decisions in an
    autonomous manner.”

    drones, not dromes

  • BadgerMk1

    When I was in the B-1, I requested a medical waiver to allow me to cross-train into RPAs. The Air Force said no. The Air Force and its “personnel crisis” can take a flying leap.

    • Larry Cook

      Sounds more like the real Air Farce to me. Their shortages are always due to failure to adjust to the NEW systems, and so on. Not a real shortage, but one that they have not solved by cross-training, or whatever. Sure there is little glamor in being an operator, but then there is very little hazards either. A bullet into the drone, or an anti-air missle is not going to mess up your whole day. Just make filling the next mission a little bit of a hassle, having to juggle drones around. But there won’t be any of those letters to have to write, informing the next of kin, how their so and so, died so bravely. Words that do little to ease the fact of death.

  • Steve

    Considering our current conflicts in uncontested theaters: the moral implications of killing from a building in Nevada and the moral implications of killing from altitude are identical.

  • Chuck

    Perhaps the regular squadrons should be detailed to fly drones as an additional duty.
    Like the squadrons in a wing would have “drone duty” on a rotational basis like KP.

    This could be augmented with pilots who get gigged for bad hair cuts or ones who lack proper AIr Force spirit.
    It could also be one of those jobs that they hold in reserve to give to high ranking officers such as “Col. Jones was caught putting the moves on Airman Smith, Col Jones has been reassigned to command the 1554th drone squadron”.

    Alternately you could have it as an introductory position. A new guy to the squadron could be started out on drones then move up to squadron snacko then to wingman etc.

    • Larry Cook

      While I gave you an up-vote, I shudder to think that the defense of my country, or my troops, might be in the hands of a reject from “real flight operations”, or a Col. that could not keep his zipper quiet.

  • Trax The Wonder Cat

    OK I have several problems with the USAF drone pilot program. The first being is the dogmatic stance of the USAF to lump drone operators in the same bucket as other pilots. This is simply archaic thinking. The kind of thinking that the AF displays whenever they meet a officer/pilot challenge. Look at the picture. The operator is wearing a flight suit. Why? Because he is a pilot and he flies a plane. It does not matter that he is in a trailer in New Mexico of Nevada and the plane is over southwest Asia. This dogma made manifest.

    While being a pilot is useful to understanding the operation of the drone and how to react if something goes awry you don’t need to train a man or woman to actually fly a plane to fly drones. A strong argument can be made that it is actually counterproductive to do so.

    What could be done is that an excellent drone operator (officer) could lead a flight of enlisted drone operators as a unit. A team if you will. Finding drone operators from the enlisted ranks would be easily done and you wouldn’t have to give them leather jackets to stay in the job.

    But this will not happen because the elitist dogma that dominates USAF thinking will strangle any thinking that isn’t about someone in a monkey suit and brass tacked to their ass and career plans that include plans to be Chief of Staff one day.

    • Jacek Siminski

      Couldn’t agree more.

    • Keith Shepherd

      All Line Air Force (LAF) officers are lumped together (pilots, navs, intel, security forces, PA, etc).

  • coss

    why do you have to be a pilot to fly a drone, I understand you should know about aero dynamics, but to spend all that money on pilot training

  • thebronze

    Why is the dweeb in the picture wearing a shoulder holster (presumably with a pistol in it)?

    • Larry Cook

      It is a posed picture, note the lack of information on the screens. You think they are going to release real stuff. The dweeb might not even be a drone operator. And some of them long ago, were flight officers, and members of aircrews. The drones used in Vietnam, were not as advanced as today’s are. So the driver, went airborne with them, just not in them. And how about the one designed to be launched from the SR-71, but ended up being launched from Buffs? It was a hyper-sonic ramjet powered drone, D-21 I believe it was. Lots of great info now-days, back then very hush-hush.

  • CWO Heath

    1. The drone operator in the picture is a CBP Officer.
    2. The Air Force has the perfect solution for this – Warrant Officers
    The last active duty Air Force warrant officer, CWO-4 James H. Long,
    retired in 1980 and the last Air Force Reserve warrant officer, CWO-4
    Bob Barrow, retired in 1992. Upon his retirement, he was honorarily
    promoted to CWO-5, the only person in the Air Force ever to hold this
    grade. Since then, the Air Force warrant officer ranks, while still
    authorized by law, are not used.

  • Larry Cook

    Yet we have an upcoming generation of video gamers, who would be very apt for this type of job. They are already “training” for the systems, and the games are cutting edge. This is sort of like the tank driving programs. The students start out on a simulator, which is nothing more than a big game system. And when they get to a real tank, they are already at home in one. Why should it be any different for the drone drivers? And gunnergoz is right, for while in the service I met many enlisted that were as smart or even smarter than some of the pilots. And thay could be trained on almost any system, and master it quickly. A pilot is becoming an un-necessary componet of an aircraft. We already have systems that can refuel in flight, and even land on a carrier deck, one of the hardest flight operations there is. And do it well, over and over. How much longer until the weapons are given the smarts to select their own targets, and so on?