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GAO to Air Force: Improve morale for drone pilots

Apr. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
An Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., after flying a routine training mission. A new study found drone pilots believe there is a negative perception attached to their jobs.
An Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., after flying a routine training mission. A new study found drone pilots believe there is a negative perception attached to their jobs. (Air Force)
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The Air Force’s drone pilots believe there is a negative perception attached to their jobs, report low morale and receive insufficient training, a new government study found.

“Without developing an approach to recruiting and retaining [remotely piloted aircraft] pilots and evaluating the viability of using alternative personnel populations for the RPA pilot career, the Air Force may continue to face challenges, further exacerbating existing shortfalls of RPA pilots,” according to the Government Accountability Office’s report.

In response, the Air Force said it is reshaping how it recruits and retains its remotely piloted aircraft crews and is working to update its crew ratios. The service, however, rejected the suggestion that enlisted personnel fly drones.

“The Air Force, on multiple occasions, examined the use of enlisted RPA operators and repeatedly decided an officer was necessary to ensure rank is commensurate with responsibility,” the Air Force said. “The Chief of Staff of the Air Force concluded that the use of alternative personnel populations was not necessary based on a [plan] to fix accessions which is now proving successful.”

Senate leaders in Sept. 2012 asked the GAO to study the Air Force’s approach to managing the remotely piloted aircraft crews, which has tripled since 2008. The office formed focus groups at three bases: Beale Air Force Base, Calif.; Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.; and Creech Air Force Base, Nev., and found that the Air Force needs to listen to its RPA crews on how to improve the career field, evaluate alternative personnel populations to be pilots, analyze the effects of being deployed-on-station and analyze the effect of being a drone pilot on promotions.

“These individuals sacrifice so much to conduct missions vital to U.S. national security interests in a fast-paced, high stress environment every day,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said April 16 in a statement on the GAO report. “Given their mission’s importance, it is critical that the Air Force take necessary steps to ensure their success.

The GAO interviewed 10 focus groups at the three bases, which included active-duty pilots. Beale was included because it has crews that fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, and Cannon includes airmen assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command.

The focus groups’ input includes:

■ All groups said that being an RPA pilot does not negatively impact promotions, though promotion is difficult to achieve as an RPA pilot. Additionally, all said pilots have low morale, face challenging working conditions and are limited in pursuing developmental opportunities.

■Nine of the 10 said working conditions are improving, although the long hours and work supporting war efforts from afarputs stress on family and social lives. The focus groups also said the quality and quantity of training is insufficient, and pilots face uncertainty in their careers.

■Eight groups said RPA units have manning shortages and the RPA career field does not have a fully developed career path.

■Seven groups said rates of promotion are getting better. However, they said RPA pilots and leadership lack experience, and retaining crews will be difficult.

■Six groups said pilots experience a lack of feedback from their supervisors.

■Five groups said RPA pilots are lower quality performers compared with other pilots, and that the broader Air Force lacks knowledge of the RPA mission.

■ Four groups said the perception of drone pilots is improving, and that the Air Force is taking steps to address stress.

■All groups said there is a broad negative perception of drone pilots.

In response to the GAO’s findings, the Air Force said it is studying how to update the RPA crew ratio and find a minimum crew ration. Currently, the deploy-to-dwell redline is 1:2, and crews are deployed-on-station with no accounting for when the red line is crossed.

This year, the Air Force is developing and measuring its accessions process to help recruiting, and the service is using the annual aviation retention pay program to retain pilots.

Despite a GAO recommendation that the Air Force evaluate the possibility of using enlisted personnel to fly drones, the Air Force reiterated its position that an officer is necessary “to ensure rank is commensurate with responsibility.” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh in November conluded that drawing “other personnel populations” to fly drones was not necessary, the report states.

But that might not always be the case, the Air Force said in its response.

“The Air Force has, however, initiated a holistic review of Air Force missions and rank requirements to execute those missions,” the service said. “This review may eventually include an examination of the use of enlisted airmen in rated positions.”■

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