Turning Point

For the first time, the Air Force will train more pilots this year to fly MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles than it does to fly its manned fighters and bombers, USA Today reported yesterday. Citing interviews with senior service officials as well as UAV-related documents, the newspaper stated that 240 unmanned aircraft operators will be trained this fiscal year compared to 214 new fighter and bomber pilots. There’s no doubt that use of UAVs has exploded, making operators of them one of the most stressed positions in the service and creating a demand to train more of them. Today there are about 35 simultaneous combat air patrols of MQ-1s and MQ-9s in Southwest Asia that provide troops in Afghanistan and Iraq with around-the-clock overhead streaming video of points of interest on the ground. If all goes according to plan, this number will surge to 43 by the end of Fiscal 2010 and to 50 in Fiscal 2011. Already the service has a two-pronged approach to churn out qualified operators more quickly: training junior non-pilot officers to fly UAVs, and moving new graduates of undergraduate pilot training directly on the unmanned track.