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The Air Force will soon have nonrated officers flying combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Granted, it won't be in an F-16 cockpit but behind a joystick 6,000 miles away, flying an MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper from Nevada or New Mexico.
Bottom line: These new career unmanned aerial vehicle pilots will be dropping bombs in combat and flying a 10,000-pound aircraft in a congested airspace without completing undergraduate pilot training.
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz announced the new UAV pilot career field Sept. 16 part of a two-pronged approach to fill the Air Force's need for hundreds of UAV pilots.
But the service also will explore the possibility of luring retired and recently separated pilots back into uniform to fly UAVs, and the idea of allowing enlisted personnel to fly UAVs has yet to be ruled out, according to Schwartz and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley. A decision on that is expected within 90 days.
Several Air Force generals said the creation of the UAV career field marks a significant cultural shift for the Air Force.
In his keynote speech at the 2008 Air & Space Conference, in which he announced the new UAV pilot career field, Schwartz said it's time to end the stigma that many associate with flying UAVs.
"The Air Force culture must promote a strong and healthy [UAV] community, not a leper colony or an agency of expedience," he said.
Although enlisted fliers have yet to be ruled out, current plans only include officers because battlefields are complex, joint environments that involve other aircraft and communicating with soldiers and airmen on the ground, said Brig. Gen. Lyn D. Sherlock, director of air operations for operations, plans and requirements at the Pentagon.
"We need them to be part of our core officer capability as we develop officers to have that knowledge of what a [UAV] does," she said.
The other part of the plan will require at least 300 pilots over the next three years to head straight from undergraduate pilot training to their first tour flying a UAV at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
The temporary surge of UPT pilots 100 a year will start immediately.
"This initiative will continue as long as the need exists, and is a necessary and important step toward increasing [UAV] capacity for the joint fight," Schwartz said.
That need has grown so large the Air Force is planning to reach out to both retired and recently separated Air Force pilots to bring them back to active duty to fly UAVs, said Sherlock and Brig. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, director of force management for manpower and personnel at the Pentagon.
It's still unclear when or how many retired and separated officers the Air Force wants to bring back, but the two generals said the experienced pilots could provide a temporary solution while the service tries to ramp up its new career training pipeline.
Military leaders all the way up to Defense Secretary Robert Gates have described the need for more Predators and Reapers over Iraq and Afghanistan as "insatiable."
The Air Force now flies 27 round-the-clock Predator and Reaper orbits in the Central Command area of operation, which involves 450 pilots. But service leaders want 50 orbits to be flown by 2012, which will require 1,100 pilots.
"Unmanned aircraft systems now play critical roles in force protection, targeting and precision strike," Schwartz said. "It's no surprise that combatant commanders' demand for these systems and their game-changing capabilities has skyrocketed."
New career field
Many of the officers interviewed for this story said the announcement of a new UAV pilot career field was inevitable.
First Lt. J.P. Felmet, a services officer at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., said he'd be interested in cross-training into the new career field.
"I'm not saying services guys don't feel part of the fight, but I think it's definitely an attractive opportunity to have a direct role," he said.
The new career track will kick-start this January with a test group of 10 officers who will go through a new course designed specifically for those with no previous flying experience.
The Air Force is targeting brand-new nonrated officers as well as young nonrated lieutenants and junior captains to cross-train into the new career field.
Officials are still deciding how officers will be selected, but the same strict medical qualifications to fly manned aircraft will not always apply.
"If you break your leg now, you can't fly, but does that hold you back from flying a UAV? Probably not," Jones said.
Sherlock said the Air Force will develop a list of required aptitudes, such as hand-eye coordination. How well applicants do on their Air Force Officer Qualifying Test also will be a factor.
Once selected, the officers will begin training at Introductory Flight Screening in Pueblo, Colo. They will then complete a specialized version of the UAV Formal Training Unit at Creech before finishing up with full major weapons system qualification.
Questions have arisen about how these pilots will qualify to fly a plane in the U.S. under guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration, but both Sherlock and Jones said ratings qualifications will be incorporated into the training pipeline.
"The Air Force has a close working relationship with the FAA and will work with them to ensure all future UAV pilots are certified to operate in the national airspace system, and under instrument conditions," said Ed Gulick, a service spokesman.
The first class of nonrated officers should finish training by fall 2009, at which point they will receive their wings, though it still hasn't been determined if they will be standard pilot wings.
A second test class of 10 will start training in the summer of 2009 and complete it in January 2010.
"We'll bring in 10 more to validate any adjustments we made to the program," Jones said.
The Air Force will then decide if the training pipeline can open up to larger numbers of officers.
It's still not clear how many pilots will be included in the new career field, which has not yet been named. The primary measures of success will be if the nonrated officers can handle the complexities of flying an aircraft and if they can pass the different phases of training, Sherlock said.
UAV UPT slots
Before the Air Force's new UAV pilot career field takes off, the service will depend on an infusion of brand-new pilots straight from UPT.
However, a week after finding out about the new initiative, many UPT pilot trainees and Air Force Academy students with pilot slots have yet to embrace the idea of flying UAVs, rather than the F-16 or A-10 of their dreams.
The new pilots will serve one two- to three-year tour at Creech before they are assigned to a manned aircraft.
The Air Force has frozen assignments for pilots at the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, where MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are flown. Some experienced pilots have served as many as seven years there while the Air Force struggles to keep up with the demand from commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the addition of UPT pilots and the continued influx of fliers from manned aircraft units, Sherlock said service leaders hope they'll have enough pilots to end the assignment freeze by the end of the year.
The decision to pluck brand-new pilots straight from UPT was made because the number of manned aircraft pilots assigned to fly UAVs was draining the experience level within the manned aircraft cadre, Sherlock said.
But that came as a surprise to Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, who noted that in 2006, the Air Force decided to assign fighter and bomber pilots to UAV units because there were too many of them.
Regardless, Sherlock said it would be at least a decade before the Air Force could even consider not having manned aircraft pilots fly UAVs.
All of the trainees and students interviewed for the story said they understand the importance of the UAV mission, but not one said he would volunteer to fly one.
Second Lt. Ryan Bodenheimer, who will graduate from UPT in November, is in one of the first classes that will find UAVs on their dream sheets a student's wish list for his first assignment.
"It's not an ideal situation. There are better ways than taking them right out of pilot training, but I think it's definitely a necessary mission," he said.
Academy Cadet 1st Class Ryan Rutherford, who will head to UPT after he graduates this spring, said he wouldn't have attended the academy if he knew he was going to fly a UAV, "and that goes for a lot of guys I know."
"It's a little disheartening. We came to the academy to fly," he said.
Second Lt. Joshua Granderson who is at Shepherd Air Force Base, Texas, waiting to start UPT, said it was "somewhat disillusioning" to hear about the initiative, but added that if he gets a UAV slot, he doesn't expect it to affect his career.
"It's a big Air Force. Spending two or three years flying UAVs will not diminish your career," he said.
Chambliss, a career F-16 pilot, said he doesn't understand such concerns since his pilots get to fly combat missions every day.
He himself flies three UAV missions a week.
"I just got to fly a mission that helped capture a high-value individual that was helping fund al-Qaida," he said.