Air Force Will Let Enlisted Pilots Fly Global Hawks

An old lesson in manpower learned anew

Air Force Global Hawk

Air Force Global Hawk

United States Air Force

Sometimes, unmanned is a horrible name for drones. Large military remotely piloted vehicles, like the Global Hawk, are piloted by and attended by rotating shifts of crew. That adds up to a rather large labor force, especially given that Global Hawks can fly for up to 30 hours, and crew shifts are only 8 hours long. So to ease the burden on the pilots, the Air Force is making a big change: They're letting enlisted pilots fly Global Hawks, and not just commissioned officers.

For years the Air Force has struggled to keep enough drone pilots. The work, often seen within the military as a career dead-end or at least a pause, requires long hours and is not without its psychological toll. Yet demand on drones for intelligence gathering and surveillance, from both the Commander in Chief and commanders in theater, remains high, so the Air Force has struggled to fly as many drone patrols as possible without exhausting its airmen. Earlier this week, the Air Force announced it would offer $125,000 to drone pilots that agreed to stay in service for five more years.

That will help keep existing pilots in. Opening up piloting positions to enlisted members will expand the total available pool of pilots for the Air Force to draw from. In their announcement, the Air Force said:

Air Force officials stated a dynamic threat environment calls for innovative approaches to high-demand missions. After careful consideration and with an eye toward potential future force needs, service officials plan to deliberately integrate the enlisted force into flying operations, starting with the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

“Our enlisted force is the best in the world and I am completely confident they will be able to do the job and do it well,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “The [drone] enterprise is doing incredibly important work and this is the right decision to ensure the Air Force is positioned to support the future threat environment. Emerging requirements and combatant commander demands will only increase; therefore, we will position the service to provide warfighters and our nation the capability they deserve today and in the future.”

That’s a lot of Pentagonese. In essence, it means that Global Hawk surveillance is a big part of current missions (like the fight against ISIS), and that Air Force officials expect they’ll need to keep flying as many or more missions in the future.

In World War II, a small number of enlisted members of the United States Army Air Forces served as pilots, however that hasn't been the case since the Air Force was spun off into its own branch in 1947. Starting in the 1960s, the Air Force only commissioned officers with college degrees to be pilots, usually ones who came up through training programs like the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and Officer Training School. This helped the flow of pilots into the Air Force, which would find its manpower sorely taxed in the contested skies above Vietnam.

There was another innovation that in one move almost doubled the available fighter pilots. The Air Force's main fighter in Vietnam was the F-4 Phantom, which featured a pilot in front and a navigator in the seat behind them. Initially, the Air Force required pilots in both seats (the Navy, which also flew the F-4, never had this requirement). In his history of the fighters of the era, C. R. Aderegg writes:

Interestingly, the decision to take pilots out of the back seat was forced onto the service by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who did not believe the Air Force had a pilot shortage as it claimed. One solution McNamara saw to the shortage was to take the pilot out of the back seat of the F–4, judging that the Air Force was wrong in its claims that it took two pilots to fly the big fighter. Tired of being stonewalled, McNamara directed the change in policy even before the test results were known

Just as in Vietnam, meeting the demands of a long war with existing manpower means changing the way things are done. With its decision to let enlisted airmen pilot unmanned vehicles, it looks like the Air Force is learning this lesson for at least the second time.