NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Air Force Academy cadets entering their senior year are beating down the door to become pilots.

The number of first-class cadets planning to become pilots is expected to increase by more than 17 percent this year — and seniors hoping to fly remotely piloted aircraft are likely to jump 47 percent.

The class of 2016, which graduated earlier this year, had 347 cadets in the pipeline to fly manned aircraft, and another 60 that sought to fly RPAs, for a total of 407 pilot hopefuls, the academy said in an email. But the newest first-class cadets, who will graduate in 2017, are expected to have about 390 manned pilots and 88 RPA pilots, or 478 total, though those numbers could change slightly before they get locked in Friday. Those cadets were told Tuesday they were accepted into pilot training.

Their eagerness to fly comes at a good time for the Air Force. Officials in recent months have begun sounding the alarm about a shortfall in fighter pilots, which is expected to grow from 500 to 700 by the end of the year — and could hit 1,000 by 2022 if the problem isn't addressed. And the Air Force is continuing to try to beef up the ranks of its RPA pilots, as combatant commanders have what officials have called an insatiable demand for the kind of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that drones can provide.

At the Air Force Association's Air Space Cyber conference Wednesday, academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said that due to the swiftly growing interest from her cadets in flying both manned and unmanned aircraft,  the academy sought — and then received — permission to graduate more pilots, especially in the RPA field.

But the academy has to balance the interest its cadets have in piloting with the Air Force's ability to process pilots through the training pipeline.

After graduation, the academy sends its newly commissioned first lieutenants to Air Education and Training Command's pilot training at places such as Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. But the pipeline for AETC to produce new pilots is limited, partly due to the limited availability of instructor pilots, so the Air Force controls how many prospective pilots the academy can produce.

But, Johnson cautioned, "We're not a quick fix" to the pilot shortage dilemma.

"It's a big, big scale operation for Air Force personnel leadership and [AETC] to figure out the pipeline," Johnson said. "We don't just put more in, and put more out. It's a complicated matter."

It also means pilots are likely to make up roughly half of the class of 2017, which will be about 900 cadets.

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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