Up and Away

The Air Force envisions building a force of 1,100 unmanned aircraft operators—up from today’s pool of about 450—by Fiscal 2012 to support 50 continuous MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper combat air patrols under two new initiatives announced Tuesday at AFA’s Air & Space Conference. The initiatives will develop a new cadre of UAV operators that do not have experience operating other combat aircraft, and in some cases, have no real previous flying experience at all, service officials said. “This will certainly be a cultural change,” Brig. Gen. Lyn Sherlock, director of air operations on the Air Staff, told reporters during a press briefing. Previously, the service has drawn its UAV operators from the ranks of more experienced pilots. But with the insatiable demand for UAVs, not only for overhead surveillance, but also for strike and additional roles, the Air Force is taking this new approach. Under the first initiative, the Air Force will select about 10 percent of its next batch of graduates from undergraduate pilot training in October—about 100 airmen—for training in UAV operations at Creech AFB, Nev. The second, more radical concept entails creating a new career field for UAV operators by choosing active-duty officers from various technical and non-technical backgrounds to teach to teach them to fly the UAVs. These officers will get some introductory flight training at Pueblo, Colo, and then go straight into Predator training “to bring them up to fully qualified mission status,” said Brig. Gen. Darrell Jones, director of force management policy on the Air Staff. To see if this idea has long-term legs, there will be a two-part “beta test” program, he said. An initial class of 10 officers will start training in January until next fall. A second class of 10 will start next summer and finish before the end of 2009, Sherlock said. If those two test runs prove successful, the Air Force would then start accepting larger classes, Jones said.