The Air Force is boosting class sizes in order to get more drone pilots into virtual cockpits.
The 558th Flying Training Squadron, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, began its first 24-person class on Jan. 11, doubling each undergraduate class size, the Air Force recently said in a release.
By May, each class will start with 24 students; with 16 projected classes starting each fiscal year, the number of pilots trained annually will jump from 192 up to 384, the Air Force said.
The ramped-up initiative comes at a time when the Air Force is trying to relieve the remotely piloted community constantly beset with difficulties such as being overworked, stressed and overextended.
For example, Air Combat Command over the next six months will develop entry requirements for enlisted airmen, the first time enlisted airmen would be able to fly RPAs, the Air Force announced in December. However, they would only fly RQ-4 Global Hawks — unarmed RPAs that fly high-altitude reconnaissance missions — but not the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper.
And for the first time, drone pilots who agree to serve five more years can get a critical skills retention bonus of up to $125,000.
"The RPA community as a whole is experiencing manpower issues and there is a need to train more pilots to help ease the overall strain on the career field," Lt. Col. John Stallworth, 558th FTS commander, said in the release. "We have worked diligently since last April to ensure we can meet the increased demand for trained [Air Force Specialty Code] '18X' pilots."
The 558th FTS, the sole unit responsible for RPA pilot training in the Air Force since January 2011, graduated 191 student pilots in fiscal 2015 and are projected to graduate 290 in fiscal 2016.
Because of the increased demand in the classroom, Stallworth said the unit has hired "roughly half of the 42 new instructor billets put on the books, which will see the squadron grow from 62 instructors to 104 over the next few months." The teachers will be 50 percent military and 50 percent civilian, he said.
The Air Force as a whole is also looking to expand its RPA operations outside of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, and may look more to bases such as Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and Davis-Monthan Air Fore Base, Arizona.
Reporter Phillip Swarts contributed to this story.
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.