From aviation’s infancy, the US military has been a leading source of aerial innovations and educator of those who put those winged aviation innovations to work. With the end of each conflict, pilots, technicians, and engineers used their training and experience in commercial endeavors.
This cyclical birth of new aviation eras is tied to the end of America’s conflicts. World War I gave life to commercial aviation. Barnstormers became air mail pilots who became airline pilots. The industry made a quantum leap after World War II, in both technology and personnel. This process is again at work, but this time the new technology is replacing the old.
Yes, I’m talking about unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones are in ascendancy, replacing manned aircraft with increasing speed. It is quite possible that the manned military fleet will never again see a new design. Given the cuts facing the defense budget, and the delays and cost overruns that have plagued it, the F-35 joint strike fighter faces an uncertain future.
The signs of change are unmistakable: GlobalPost cites a Congressional report that says, “1 in 3 US Warplanes a drone.” With a fleet of 7,494 UAVs of all types, the fleet has increased 40-fold since 2005. In 2011, reports National Defense, “For the first time in its history, the Air Force trained more UAV pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.”
In the same article, looking forward a short way, to 2020, a former commander of the Naval Air System Command said, “The Air Force and Navy will always have [fighter and bomber] pilots, but you can debate whether future operators will be airborne.” Picking up the slack, a number of collegiate aviation program have created UAV programs.
If aviation stays true to its historical precedents, commercial operations will follow the military’s lead. In coming full circle, pilots who want to get old school and actually climb into the sky will do so for personal enjoyment in a GA aircraft. Most likely it’ll be a Cessna 172, which like the B-52, is an ageless and irreplaceable vet. –Scott Spangler