I came to my Wall Street Journal yesterday, and there was probably the most shocking news of 2015.....the Air Force had finally admitted defeat.....agreeing to take enlisted guys as drone pilots.
Around a dozen years ago, I stood during a pause at work (on Ramstein) with an associate and we were discussing the beginning of issues for the Air Force drone program.....recruitment of drone pilots. The Air Force had mandated that only pilots (officers) could fly the drones.
As a drone pilot.....the scenario was drawn. You would work your magic to get accepted to the AF officers program, and then work more magic to be accepted as a pilot. Somewhere after that initial pilot assignment.....as a bomber, tanker, cargo, or fighter pilot.....would be pushed into a room and there Lt Col so-v-so would note that you were 'special' and needed to go to the base in Vegas to be a drone pilot.
Pilots hated the offer....mostly because it wasn't really an offer....they were going to handcuff to an impossible deal to turn down. You'd be offered the follow-on dream assignment in three years.....to Florida or California.....or be given the dream airframe (F-16).....or be offered a golden ticket to make Major or Lt Col.
A mission meant you showed up at a certain time....got a cup of coffee....and proceeded to sit inside of a cubical-like structure in an executive-style ergonomically-friendly chair, with a couple of big screens, some pilot-like knobs and controls, and put on a head-piece to hear chatter from a dozen-odd people. Air conditioning ran in the background.....you could excuse yourself for a couple of minutes to hit the 'head'....and you could munch on a ham sandwich that you made that morning.
The Air Force eventually got around to handing out medals.....which pepped up half the guys, but made the other half miserable because they were merely earning some big-name medal while sitting in a building with no real activity other than flying a drone in the middle of a war-zone.
As time went by.....guys got negative about the assignment, the duty, the killing missions, and the long hours. Recruitment got to be more and more of a problem. Earlier in 2015, they were actually considering hiring contractors to be drone pilots, and that got the ethical experts in the Air Force and Pentagon all disturbed. So, they did the impossible.....they opened the front door and admitted that enlisted could be drawn into the program.
Oh, the general did comment in the Wall Street Journal that there was lots of pieces to the idea to be worked out yet, and there would have to be a ton of training for the first enlisted guy to be allowed on a mission. The hindrance to all of this? There is a mentality about having a drone worth several million dollars in the hands of a mere enlisted guy.....someone who isn't a Air Force pilot to start with.
On any given day at a typical Air Force base.....I'd take a guess that forty enlisted guys are sitting in the barracks for a Saturday.....spending sixteen hours in their own personalized cubicle in the dorm room.....flying their own video game drone or fighter on some mission. They munch through a sandwich, drink Mountain Dew, and take a four-minute break at the 'head'. They wrap up the mission with a pizza and go to sleep.....happily. No one offers them some special assignment deal, a promotion deal, or dream air-frame. This was their idea of a day off.
Across the Air Force.....there's probably over 10,000 enlisted guys with video skills and willingness to move onto drone-pilot tomorrow. Oh, there will be examinations, tests, and they will only recruit the 'purest of the pure' to fit into their theme of the professional pilot.
My humble guess is that they will only take enlisted guys or gals who've been in the service more than six years....have a minimum of an associates degree....and pass at least two complete mental examinations on stress.
As the initial year concludes and fifty such enlisted guys arrive in Vegas and take up the art of drone pilots....there will be some high expectations, and ninety-five percent of the guys last out the first year in a successful way. One or two idiots will demonstrate alcohol or drug issues and get dismissed rather quickly. After five years.....folks will be kinda surprised that enlisted guys will make up seventy-percent of the drone-pilot core. Some guys will even ask for a year or two extension because they are having so much 'fun'.
Special incentives offered to the enlisted guys? In the end, other than a leather jacket....nothing will be offered. The amusing thing is that these computer geek guys were always the perfect fit into the job. Other than maybe free Mountain Dew or a better chair for the mission.....that's about all they'd wish for.