The Air Force is vastly expanding the number of enlisted airmen who can apply to fly drone aircraft.

When the Air Force in July first announced details on its plans to retrain enlisted airmen to fly the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk, it said that only airmen who were career enlisted aviators in Air Force specialty codes beginning with either 1AXXX -- including jobs such as flight engineers, aircraft loadmasters, and airborne cryptologic linguists -- or 1U0XX sensor operators could apply.

But that has now changed. In a Monday release, the Air Force said enlisted airmen in all AFSCs can apply.

Other eligibility requirements that were announced in July -- that airmen must be staff sergeants through senior master sergeants, and must be able to stay on active duty for six years after they graduate -- remain in effect.

The Air Force is also moving back some deadlines to give more people a chance to apply. Originally, airmen had until Nov. 18 to submit their application packages and the Air Force Personnel Center was going to hold the first enlisted remotely piloted aircraft selection board Jan. 23 to 26, 2017. But now, the application deadline is due Dec. 16, and the board will meet Feb. 6 to 9, 2017. The results will be announced later that month.

The eligibility changes mean that the pool of potentially eligible airmen has grown from roughly 4,000 to more than 87,000, according to manning data available on the Air Force's IDEAS database.

"Expanding opportunities in the RPA program is one of many ways the Air Force is tapping into the talent of our skilled, diverse and innovative enlisted force," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said, explaining why the eligibility was expanded. "This gives airmen an opportunity to excel in a new way, and we couldn't be more pleased to open the doors."

The Air Force is still planning to send its first 10 enlisted airmen to RPA pilot training this October. By 2020, there could be as many as 100 enlisted airmen flying Global Hawks, or about half the 198 pilots flying those aircraft.

While all enlisted career fields are now open, there are some restrictions, the Air Force said. Airmen who are receiving a critical skills retention bonus, or airmen in the 2AXXX aerospace maintenance, 1B4X1, 3D0X2, 3D0X3 or 3D1X2 cyber, 2M0XX missile maintenance, 2W2XX nuclear weapons, and 1C2XX, 1C4XX, 1T2XX, 1W0X2 or 3E8XX battlefield airmen career fields must get their career field manager to release them to apply to be RPA pilots.

Some career fields may limit or restrict their airmen's ability to apply to become pilots if they need to maintain acceptable operational manning levels.

Eligible airmen interested in becoming a drone pilot can start by taking the computer-based Air Force Enlisted Pilot Qualifying Test and the Test of Basic Aviation Skills between Sept. 1 and Oct. 14, the release said. The pilot qualifying test takes about 85 minutes and covers four areas, such as math and aviation knowledge, and the aviation test takes about 75 minutes, the Air Force said.

The Air Force said that airmen who have flown off-duty can use those flying hours to help their chance of being chosen.

The pilot and aviation test "scores are combined with an applicant's flying hours to generate a pilot candidate selection method score, which if high enough, enables an airman to advance to phase 2 of the application process," Senior Master Sgt. Kimberly Pollard, an RPA enlisted specialty manager, said in the release. 

Applicants who have already taken the paper pilot qualifying test, or the pilot portion of Air Force Officer Qualifying Training, and wish to have those scores be considered instead of taking the computer-based pilot qualifying test, should email the Enlisted Aircrew Assignments Workflow at

Applicants who have taken the paper enlisted pilot qualifying test or officer qualifying training in the past 180 days may not take the pilot test again, but can still confirm their intent to apply by sending an email to that address.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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