Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh will make a decision in November on whether enlisted airmen can fly remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones.
What's more, Welsh opened the door to considering enlisted pilots in manned aircraft as well.
"It's time to look at how we use this talent pool in a different way," Welsh said. "And one of the ways we could use it is not just in the RPA force. RPA would just be the first piece, we have to look at the pilot force in general."
Welsh made his remarks at a May 21 virtual town hall. While he said he has no doubt that enlisted airmen are able to fly drones, the Air Force needs to consider some possible issues that might come up if enlisted airmen flew alongside officers.
"You could create situations, if you're not careful, where you've got really weird student-instructor relationships," Welsh said at the town hall, which has been posted on YouTube.
The Air Force is losing more drone pilots than it trains, and one possible solution being considered would be to allow enlisted airmen to become drone pilots. Currently, enlisted airmen serve as sensor operators for drones. All the pilots are commissioned officers.
Welsh said he has also asked for a review of whether enlisted airmen who fly drones may resent the fact that they would be earning less money than officers, who are doing the same job.
"For example, you might be really excited about being an RPA pilot and going into it and getting an aviation bonus and all that as a staff or a tech [sergeant], and when you make master, you're still really excited about it, but now you're flying right next to this major or a lieutenant colonel who is making a heck of a lot more money than you are, and they're the commander and you're listening to them," Welsh said.
"When you first start, you're probably OK then, but after you've been in the business for 15 years, you're probably not going to be as happy about putting up with that because you're going to know an awful lot about the business — more — than that new commander does and they're making a lot more money."
Welsh said the timeline for making a decision is the Corona meeting this fall. "I've asked them to come back with specific details about things like what exactly would the composition be of a test class, if we started a test class about [a] year from now. How many of what types of specialties would we consider, should it mostly be RPA sensor operators in that test group or should we make it broader than that."
Enlisted airmen could begin to learn how to fly drones on Oct. 1, 2016, he said.
For the Corona meeting in June, Welsh has asked for information on what the composition should be of a test class for enlisted drone pilots.
"Should it be mostly RPA sensor operators in that test group, or should we make it a little broader than that and not just take people who are already very familiar with the mission and bring in, maybe, half RPA sensor operators, who want to become a pilot, and half airmen, who are just strong performers everywhere else and have no aviation background — and give them the same kind of tests we give when we recruit people for this career fields as officers?" Welsh said.
Welsh also raised the possibility that enlisted airmen might eventually be allowed to fly manned aircraft as well.
"RPA would be the first piece," he said. "We have to look at the pilot force in general."