Return of the Enlisted Pilots

Feb. 27, 2017

The need for pilots was so acute as World War I and later World War II began that enlisted aviators were brought into the service.

It was a stopgap measure. Now, 60 years after USAF’s last “flying sergeant” retired, the Air Force is again short of pilots and is, again, turning to its enlisted corps to fill the gap.

As remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) use has grown almost exponentially over the last 20 years—since USAF began deploying the MQ-1 Predator— the Air Force has struggled to keep up, frequently tapping veteran fighter pilots from a field where there’s also a shortage. They have taken up RPA operations for aircraft such as the MQ-1 and MQ-9 Reaper scout and strike aircraft.

With no letup in demand, these temporary RPA pilots were often not allowed to return to their primary aircraft. As workweeks crowded out weekends, duty days lengthened, and morale plummeted among RPA operators, the Air Force sought solutions.

The first fix was setting up a special pilot training track that would send officers with no previous flying experience directly to RPAs. It wasn’t enough. After long deliberation, the Air Force in 2015 decided to reintroduce enlisted pilots. On Oct. 12, 2016, four enlisted airmen began pilot training.

The first element of the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class entered the undergraduate pilot training program with the 1st Flying Training Squadron in Pueblo, Colo. In early November, two EPIC trainees completed their first solo flights. By the end of 2017, these four airmen should be flying live missions with the RQ-4 Global Hawk RPA.

The Air Force is not naming the pilots and trainees, citing security concerns.

EPIC is only one initiative aimed at overhauling the RPA program. Its initial goal is to produce 100 enlisted pilots for the RQ-4 by the end of 2020. These airmen are training alongside officers learning to fly the same platforms, and they are completing the same training program used by the Air Force to produce RPA pilots.

By all accounts, there’ll be no reduction in the call for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), especially that delivered by the MQ-9 and the Global Hawk.

There’s an “insatiable” demand for ISR, CMSgt. Christopher King told Air Force Magazine. He is the career field manager for Career Enlisted Aviators (CEAs).

To meet the demand, Air Education and Training Command (AETC) already doubled its planned 2016 RPA pilot production, from 192 to 384.

It’s been clear for a while that the need for RPA operators would outstrip the requirement because of “the end strength where it is” and the existing ratio of officers to enlisted, King said. Therefore this “is the perfect time to posture ourselves to have a ready model for increased capabilities for the future.”

The Air Force is taking a deliberate approach to building its cadre of enlisted pilots. Beyond the first group of four, only eight more enlisted pilot trainees have been chosen. Those first dozen EPIC trainees were handpicked, though.

“We wanted some folks that had some aviation background,” said Col. David S. Drichta, chief of undergraduate flying training for the Air Force. Most of the initial group are Career Enlisted Aviators, he said. Such airmen operate electronics equipment in the back of airborne warning and control system or Compass Call aircraft, are air refueling boom operators, or are cargo aircraft loadmasters, to name a few specialties. “There’s a common vocabulary and a training mindset there that was helpful to us,” Drichta said.

The go-slow pace was ordered from the top. Lt. Gen. Darryl L. Roberson, commander of AETC, told Air Force Magazine that he wants the EPIC program to be “a very deliberate training process.” He said AETC is “working closely with Air Combat Command to ensure we forge RPA airmen ready to support the long-term ISR needs of combatant commanders.”

At the same time, the initiative is being launched with an eye toward future expansion and evolution. King said it’s important to note that two of the first 12 enlisted trainees aren’t CEAs and have no previous flying experience. This mix is by design, Drichta said. The Air Force wants to “normalize a training pipeline that will accept enlisted folks from all backgrounds,” he explained.

Indeed, the next selection board for enlisted pilot trainees, which was slated to meet in February, was to be open “to every enlisted member in the Air Force,” according to King.

There’s already been a surge of applications. More than 800 airmen put in for an enlisted pilot slot before the July 2016 deadline, a number that was narrowed to 305 in November.

Clearly, many airmen recognize what Drichta said is the intention of the program: to produce greater “opportunities for our enlisted force.”

The Air Force wants to train 32 enlisted pilots per year under the initial plan, Drichta pointed out, but how much the program grows will be driven by future requirements.

The Air Force is also unsure of how the program might evolve. For now, enlisted pilots will train only to fly ISR missions with the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a largely autonomous aircraft that requires supervision more than active piloting—and that doesn’t carry any weapons. The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, both able to carry munitions, will continue to be piloted only by officers for the time being.

Drichta said it’s still to be determined whether the Predator and Reaper will be opened to enlisted pilots, though “anything’s possible.” He believes the current policy isn’t intended to restrict enlisted pilots from conducting strike missions.

The relative stability of the RQ-4 mission makes it the right airframe to introduce enlisted airmen to flying, King said. “There’s not a shortage” in the RQ-4 pilot community, he said; Global Hawk pilots haven’t faced the same operating tempo pressures that have plagued the MQ-1 and MQ-9 communities. Still, moving these newly minted enlisted pilots into the RQ-4 community will allow the service to assign more officer pilots to the Predator and Reaper communities.

An RPA get-well plan, called the Culture and Process Improvement Program (CPIP), was launched in December 2015 and implemented a variety of policies—fewer combat air patrols, more pilots and aircraft, and quality-of-life improvements—to address the overworked MQ-1/9 pilot pool.

While the Air Force is optimistic that CPIP’s changes are answering the core problems of the MQ-1/9 community, the service is reluctant to introduce enlisted pilots to a mission still climbing out of a period of great instability. The RQ-4 is “the perfect place to start this off in, to train without creating any kind of waves in the other programs,” King observed.

EPIC will parallel efforts to solve shortages and instabilities elsewhere in the RPA field. Program leaders said training enlisted airmen to fly takes the long-term approach of deepening future Air Force ISR capacity and developing the enlisted force. “Growing enlisted pilots in the RQ-4 Global Hawk is the first step in developing future operating concepts within the ISR enterprise,” Roberson said.

Drichta explained that his training program is about “creating … pipelines and paths for enlisted career progression, both professionally and technically, as we grow this enterprise.” It’s just one more new avenue for enlisted careers to follow.

He said the excitement in the program among new RPA pilots is an indicator of the “untapped potential” of an enlisted flying force. With the explosive growth in the applications of RPAs showing no signs of waning, “over the next 20 to 30 years, it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around … [what’s] possible” in the enlisted flying field.

King is likewise optimistic about where the program could go, saying there’s no way to know yet what it could lead to.

“That’s the exciting piece: … How far are we going to go with this, and what new airframes are going to be developed, and are we going to use enlisted pilots for their deployment? It could be incredible,” he said.