The Era of the Fighter Pilot Replaced by the Drone Pilot?

An Air Force Times article has an interesting summation of the feelings about RPA/UAV pilots in the Air Force:

Becoming a fighter pilot is still a hotly coveted goal at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
But slowly, a culture change is taking hold.
Initially snubbed as second-class pilot-wannabes, the airmen who remotely control America’s arsenal of lethal drones are gaining stature and securing a permanent place in the Air Force.

The article then says part of the reason for the “draw” to the drone career is the very-public successes of drone missions: 

Drawn to the flashy drone strikes that have taken out terrorists including al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen to the terror group’s No. 2 strongman Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan, airmen are beginning to target unmanned aircraft as their career of choice.

Of course, few noticed that analysis relies on a very significant assumption:  That al-Awlaki and al-Libi were killed by UAVs.  It may not matter, as the perception is what may be driving the attraction.

The article completely ignores a potentially more significant factor in the decision to become a UAV pilot: UAV pilots are far more likely to stay home with their families, compared to fighter pilots who are deployed anywhere from 3 to 6 months every 18 to 24 months.

In other words, young fighter pilots are getting burned out and are taking UAV tours because they’re a break, relatively speaking.  That’s not to say the UAV operators don’t work hard, but at the end of their mission they’re still in the US of A (most of them, anyway), and they still see their families.  It’s a quality of life issue as much as anything else.

Only now are the first UAV operators who have never previously been a pilot entering the field.  It would be interesting to see their response if they were offered a fighter jet instead of their control console, as opposed to those who have experienced that life already. 

The article continues the awkward tradition of only using UAV operator’s first names:

Drone pilot Maj. Ted began his Air Force career as an F-16 pilot but shifted to flying drones…The U.S. military doesn’t allow drone pilots to make their full names public because of concerns the pilots could be targeted.

Apparently there’s no concern that pilots of manned aircraft might be targeted, since the Air Force allows not only full names, call signs, and hometowns, but also video interviews summarizing their combat missions to be broadcast around the world and on the internet.

Are the streets of Indian Springs really that much less secure than those in Italy and the Middle East?  Maybe its just another way to add to the mystique…


  • Good thing you’ll always have a career as a blogger for your own self-founded “ministry” to fall back on when they don’t need any pilots at all anymore, huh?

  • I cannot imagine a time when aircraft pilots would be obsolete. We have seen them come through the advancement in aeronautical technology with flying colors. Pilots have adjusted to everything from technology to stress and to master even the most complicated aircraft and aero-space vehicles.

    Remember, the remote drone operator is dependent on a link which adds an additional burden of control. Reaction time is also dependent on that link and the operators ability to absorb and react to data in transit and the inability to quickly survey the area by a number of fixed and transverse TV cameras. Aircraft pilots act in real time.

    There is also the judgement factor that affected by this link between operator and aircraft. Split-second decisions by pilots are extended by the link and even a few seconds can be disastrous.

    Do not mistake my advocacy for manned flight as a detraction from remotely controlled aircraft. They are an important factor in today’s warfare model and certainly have made startling advances in reconnoiter, intelligence gathering and strategy not to mention zero loss of pilots.

    However, Pilots will become even more important as we advance into space where now we are still at the mercy of the link-up. As space technology advances and long distance spacecraft become independent of that control link, pilots will again be the only dependable method to fly the craft, render immediate judgement. observe and report, handle glitches and above all employ the most important factor in flight………Seat of the pants piloting.

  • @Richard
    I’ll give you this much, at least you addressed the article. I’m beginning to think Chris Rodda has to clock in/out as a requirement of her MRFF paycheck.

    Many advocates of UAVs as we know them today ignore (or don’t know) the fact these UAVs wouldn’t survive past day 1 of a shooting war. Until stealth UCAVs come along, manned combat aircraft will be the ones securing the airspace even for drones.

    Your last paragraph is reminiscent of the argument between the engineers and the astronauts in The Right Stuff.

  • @JD
    I can’t speak for Chris. I admire her writing and research skills. But of course her opinions are just as yours and mine based mostly on our personal fellings and our personal interests.

    I think that Chris’s postngs, yours, mine and others paint a braod brush stroke across the political, religious and milititary spectrum that at once informs, speculates, opines and defends positions.

    This is a healthy exchange and deserves a forum. Thankfully yours is there.

    There are some barbs but ones we are able to

  • @JD
    (sorry) handle and deflect.