UAV Operators Get Wings, Flight Pay

A previous post noted that the Air Force graduated UAV pilots who had no prior flight experience.  More recently, the Air Force announced [updated link] that those pilots will wear the following wings, designed by public affairs Staff Sergeant Austin May in the UK:

(By comparison, you can see traditional Air Force pilot wings in the ChristianFighterPilot logo.)  The wings were awarded to the first class that just graduated.  This is not an insignificant step for the Air Force, which is characterized by a culture that closely guards those who it permits to wear wings.  The Air Force also announced that the UAS pilots who had not attended a pilot training class would be in a new career field that would be considered “rated,” a designation for flying-related career fields (for example, both pilots and air traffic controllers are rated).  The new career field will also be eligible for flight pay, or what is officially known as aviation “incentive pay” (see the related FAQ).

The Air Force is also reconsidering the term “unmanned” with respect to UAVs, saying that the systems require a great deal of “manning” that is undermined by the term.

The moves reflect the emphasis that the Air Force has recently placed on unmanned systems, particularly due to their significant role in ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Still, while the Air Force has even broadcast recruiting commercials that feature UAVs, the stereotypical person interested in the Air Force is fascinated by airplanes, not UAVs.  The AF is struggling to make the UAV career field as “cool” as being a pilot, with mixed results.

While there is currently some need for this emphasis on remote/unmanned systems, the Air Force and the US would do well to remember that we may likely face an adversary in the future who will present a more traditional (that is, more formidable) threat than we currently face in the AOR.  United States military history is littered with stories of over-emphasis on the present to the detriment of the future.  One would hope that we’d learn our lesson at some point.

At this point, it’s not so clear that we have.