Fewer than 10 U.S. Air Force drone pilots are slated to receive this year a new $1,500 bonus designed to address a personnel shortage in the highly stressed workforce, an official said.
The low number confirms what operators of the MQ-1 Predator and other remotely piloted aircraft suspected about the increased financial incentive -- that it would only target a select number of experienced airmen.
The Air Force last month announced it was more than doubling monthly incentive pay from $650 to $1,500 for RPA pilots who have finished a six-year service commitment.
The move -- which doesn’t apply to those with less experience -- is a temporary fix until officials can change the policy to offer them aviation continuation pay of as much as $25,000 a year, like they do with pilots of manned aircraft, officials said.
Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for the service at the Pentagon, said that while the new incentive was effective immediately, “None of our pilots will receive that pay until they hit that six-year active-duty service commitment, and the first ones will hit that mark at the end of FY2015,” referring to the Sept. 30 end of the government’s current fiscal year.
When asked how many drone pilots will initially be eligible, she said, “It’s less than 10 prior to 2016.”
One RPA pilot who requested anonymity so he could speak freely about the effort said he and his colleagues wouldn’t see the additional money, which amounts to $10,200 annually, for a long time, possibly years. As a result, the incentive might not be enough to stem the tide of pilots leaving the service to pursue other career opportunities, he said.
“They’re not trying to fix the problem -- it’s more Band-Aids,” he said, referring to leaders. “They’re trying to spend the least amount of money to get the best benefit. If they really want to fix the problem, all they have to do is take more people out of planes that are over-manned,” such as the C-17 cargo aircraft, KC-10 refueling tanker and F-16 fighter jet, he said.
The individual noted that drone pilots typically fly between 900 and 1,100 hours a year, while fighter pilots generally fly about half as much -- some even less.
“If you read an article about the F-22, it talks about how great they are, but they’re not really doing anything,” he said. “They weren’t really designed for air-to-ground missions, they were designed for air-to-air combat, which we don’t really have anymore.”
Meanwhile, the officer said, “Our schedules are rough. We fly six-day workweeks. I’ve had 1,500-, 1,600-, 1,700-hour years the last couple of years.” He added, “I can't imagine working this schedule for another few years.”
Overall, the Air Force has about 1,000 active-duty pilots for Predators and Reapers, though more than 200 additional aviators are needed. The service trains about 180 such pilots a year, but needs about 300 of them and loses about 240 due to attrition. Training units are chronically understaffed because many trainers are pulled from operational units, officials said.
The RPA pilot said part of the problem stems from a cultural divide within the Air Force and the ongoing stigmatization of unmanned aircraft operators, who are still judged by some of their peers as not being “real” pilots.
“This is an undesirable assignment by most accounts,” he said. “We don't feel the plane, but on any given day, I can kill somebody. That’s the absolute truth. It’s no less real.”
Beyond pay, the Air Force plans to mobilize more members of the Reserves and National Guard to help man active-duty RPA units, encourage airmen who volunteered to fly MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers in the past to return to the units, and delay allowing pilots who are authorized to fly both manned and unmanned aircraft to leave the drone units.
The service is also considering following the Army in allowing non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, fly unmanned aircraft, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has said. It’s looking at encouraging pilots from services that are divesting aviation assets to move into the RPA field, he said.
Several readers e-mailed Military.com to weigh in on the issue. Rich Redhill, a former chief master sergeant in the Air Force who oversaw 250 air traffic controllers across five bases throughout the Alaskan theater of operations, said not permitting qualified noncommissioned officers to fly drones is “officer politics at the highest levels.”
“It’s amazing that the Air force will consider warrant officers from other services, but not train a cadre of existing senior NCOs to fill this role,” he wrote. “Our senior enlisted workforce has, on innumerable occasions demonstrated their skills in any number of previously officer billets.” He added, “Doesn’t the Air Force think that with the proper training I or my peers couldn’t excel as drone pilots?”
Priscilla Moreland, who retired from the service as a lieutenant colonel, said one way to alleviate the shortage would be to lower the existing height requirement.
“Right now, the minimum height-limit starts at 5'4". My daughter is 5'2". What difference does it make what height you are when you are flying a drone? You are not actually sitting in an airplane,” she wrote. “Why are the AF generals still sticking to old, outdated rules? What is their reason?”
She added, “There are people with college degrees who would love the opportunity to be a drone pilot, but don’t qualify with the height limit requirements. It’s time for the Air Force to ‘get with the program’ and have some flexibility. Aim high.”
Douglas Dorman called for letting older veterans back into the service for “drone duty.”
“There are more than enough Air Force veterans out here that because of disabilities or other circumstances would love an opportunity to be trained as a pilot on the drones,” he wrote. “A lot of us didn’t realize what we had in the service until we were out.”
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org