The Air Force is launching a new pilot training program that will include enlisted airmen — and could eventually lead to them flying combat aircraft.
Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy, commander of the Second Air Force, said in a Nov. 30 email to his commanders that 15 officers and 5 enlisted airmen will be picked for the six-month pilot training program.
“Enlisted volunteers will be pioneers in innovating Air Force aviator recruitment, selection, and training processes by demonstrating the potential of non-college graduates to succeed in a rigorous pilot training environment,” Leahy wrote. “This program will provide data to [Air Education and Training Command commander Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast] on the potential for enlisted members to train to fly modern combat aircraft.”
Candidates who succeed and become students will take solo flights in T-6 trainers, Leahy wrote.
The email was provided to Air Force Times by former airman Steven Mayne, who runs the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco page.
AETC spokeswoman Marilyn Holliday confirmed Leahy’s email was genuine. She said in an email to Air Force Times that the Pilot Training Next Initiative will create a training detachment in Austin, Texas. Instructors will “leverage existing and emerging technology” to train the students.
“AETC chose to focus on flying training because of the urgency involved with the enterprise,” Holliday said. “However, our focus is on how airmen learn, not necessarily what they learn, exploring technology and how that technology can produce better and faster learning.”
Holliday said that as part of the initiative, the Air Force will team up with researchers, industry representatives, advanced biometrics experts, and academics to build a training environment integrating virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and analytics.
Leahy began his email by saying that Kwast asked Second Air Force for help modernizing “how the Air Force conducts pilot training by employing emerging technologies.”
Leahy also said that the deadline for airmen to volunteer online is Dec. 15, and that the selectees will begin training Feb. 15. Leahy said that his staff had identified 250 potential candidates for pilot training.
This could represent a major expansion of the Air Force’s fledgling experiment with enlisted aviators. After a long study, the Air Force two years ago began allowing enlisted airmen to fly the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance remotely-piloted aircraft.
Aside from that, the Air Force has until now not made any moves to allow enlisted to fly armed RPAs such as the MQ-9 Reaper, or manned aircraft of any kind.
But top officials never closed the door entirely. In a February interview, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright noted that there are many enlisted airmen who have private pilot’s licenses.
“I don’t know that [having enlisted airmen fly manned aircraft] will happen on my watch, but I think that’s the natural progression,” Wright said. “We have some brilliant young minds in our Air Force that are perfectly capable of flying manned aircraft.”
Wright said at the time the he was “a little torn” over the question, because he felt that an enlisted airman who is talented enough to fly probably deserves to be commissioned as an officer.
In August, Wright launched a study into whether reviving the warrant officer program would make the Air Force more lethal and efficient. That study is expected to be done sometime in February. Some observers have suggested making enlisted pilots warrant officers would be a good way to recognize their extra responsibilities and compensate them accordingly.
The Air Force has also been increasingly struggling to reverse an alarming shortfall of pilots — especially in the fighter pilot ranks — as commercial airliners ramp up their recruiting of military pilots. Allowing enlisted to fly could help ease the pressure the Air Force feels.
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 Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.