UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence

By Scott Spangler on March 24th, 2009

A recent New York Times’s article, “Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda, ” added to the mounting evidence that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are changing the face of military aviation. This is especially true in the U.S. Air Force, an organization run by pilots for pilots. Herein lies the problem: with a growing number of missions (they’ve nearly tripled over the past three years), there’s a shortage of UAV pilots.

NYT2009031616561815CThis is where the military intelligence comes in. The Air Force says UAVs must be flown by pilots who are trained to fly manned aircraft. (I’m not sure why; I’ve tried flying remote-controlled models, and nothing I learned in the cockpit helped me.) So it has been re-equipping squadrons, like the NY ANG’s F-16 flying 174th Fighter Wing, with the MQ-9 Reaper. (I imagine the the pilots were thrilled to hear they’d soon be trading a cockpit for cubicle with a joystick and computer screens.)

JetWhine_Predator_Grd On the one hand, this makes sense.  UAVs, made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems,  cost less than F-16s and other flying hardware like it. Powered by a Rotax 914F, the MQ-1 Predator is 27 feet long and ca cruise at 25,000 feet for more than 20 hours. With its ground control station, it costs $7.6 million. The Reaper is slightly. Powered by a TPE 331 turboprop, it’ll cruise at 50,000 feet all day long. It costs $13.4 million (and unarmed versions now patrol U.S. borders from bases in North Dakota and Arizona.)

On the other and, retraining fighter pilots to fly UAVs makes no sense at all. A recent article in the Air Force Times, “UAV pilot career field could save $1.5B,” showed why. It takes more than a year and $2.6 million to train a fighter pilot. It takes 20 weeks and $135,000 to train a UAV pilot, who doesn’t need to be a fighter pilot, hence the savings.

Jetwhine_AF Wings To be fair, the Air Force is considering this option, as a story explained in  “USAF tests non-aviators for unmanned air system operations.” But it seems clear that the generals in charge (all of whom are, most likely, pilots) are trying to sustain the heroic status earned by 20th century pilots. Training non-pilots to fly UAVs could be a solution, they say, but “it raises debate around issues such as whether operators will be awarded wings and earn flight rates of pay.”

Like it or not, 21st century aviation is all about clinical and economic efficiency: technology rules and our master is the bottom line. You train to do the job at hand, no more, no less. It’s time to face reality. Professional pilots today, military or civilian, are systems operators. UAVs are just the next step in this process; they move the system operator from the cockpit to the cubicle. The military gets more bang for its bucks. Pilots give up g-forces–and the chance of a hostile death.

It will be interesting to see how the UAV pilot shortage shakes out in the short term. The long term seems clear, however. UAVs will be flying an increasing percentage of military missions, and as the need for UAV pilots grows, the bottom line will ultimately issue the training orders. — Scott Spangler

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41 Responses to “UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence”

  1. Eric Says:

    This seems like a role that any civilian with a PPL or even a highly experienced MS Flight Simulator “pilot” could be trained to do. Why waste a fully rated combat pilot on UAV missions?

  2. Dan Says:

    Ive flown this type of UAV for almost a decade. I’ve flown real airplanes for 18 years and counting. You’ll never fly for me with only experience in flight simulator. A requisite to fly THESE (RQ1/RQ9) aircraft (NOT tactical point and click UAVs) is extensive manned aircraft experience. Go become a PREDATOR INSTRUCTOR pilot and get back to us or quit making uniformed comments. The author of this article needs to get a clue along with you, Eric.

  3. Jim Harrod Says:

    I don’t eem to understand the nature of the problem in finding pilots to fly your UAV’s.

    I personally spent 26 years in the UAFF Reserves as a mechanic and a flight engineer and have also had the good fortune to of been an airline Captain for another 20 years on top of that and am now retired from both and working part time as a contract Pilot of VLJ’s.

    I will speak for myself here but I also know other professional aviators who are retired that would jump at the opportunity to fly these craft in support of their country and our comrades currently in the Military.

    You’ve got pilots out here sitting on 20,000 plus hours of experience looking for something to do. Tell the generals with all due respect to look beyond the edge of their desk and he’ll have you guys fully manned with a 1000% backup capability in less than a week.

    Sincerely, Jim Harrod

    Retired Msgt, Airline Captain, Aircraft mechanic and full time Flight Instructor!

  4. Scott Says:

    I’ll agree that learning to fly a UAV would take more than “Flight Sim.” My only proof of this is that flying the PC sims used to train new RC model pilots help, but they do not create fail-safe pilots, as crashed models attest when a new RC’er takes the sticks.

    But I still fail to see the correlation between in-cockpit experience and the UAV mission. Dan, as a pilot with experience in both, perhaps you can give us an example or two of those requisite skill transfers. Thanks!

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Scott beat me to the punch, but Dan, I would be glad to hear about the extra skills it takes to pilot a UAV that requires fighter-pilot training.

    They aren’t dog-fighting for heavens sake.

    Even sending a small missile at a ground target … how tough can that be to lock on and fire?

    I’d love to hear more about this.

  6. Ray Says:

    this was bound to happen according to a survey

  7. Norman Says:

    The RAF are heavily involved in this program and forming their own squadrons. The comment I picked up on from them was that it is the relationship between the GIB/Looker/RIO that makes or breaks the mission.
    The missions are very tough when they go hot but most are routine looking for intelligence to track movements and habit changes that fit into the bigger Intel picture. Those missions perhaps (an uninformed view) may be suitable for non-combat trained pilots but Dan does have his point I think.

    Perhaps we are going to see an entirely new category of pilot – one trained from day one for the role. It will be quite a task though and will probably involve FAC duties to develop an intimate understanding of the battlefield and its demands. Those are real people down there…

  8. Norman Says:

    …. relationship pilot to GIB/’Looker’/RIO/WSO that makes or breaks…

    Should have spend another minute editing.. LOL

  9. kevin Says:

    I don’t think anyone mentioned fighter pilot training


    Like it or not UAV will have a good size role to play in all branches of the military. As a former military pilot I have mixed feelings about men and women being removed from the cockpit but from a tactical, strategic and cost effectiveness standpoint it makes perfect sense.

    UAV have more endurance and are cheaper to operate than manned aircraft. They can provide battlefield commanders or fleet commanders with round the clock real time intelligence in addition to being able to attack targets.

    In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of unmanned submarine in the near future.

    Become A Marine Pilot

  10. kevin Says:

    Forget to mention…as Jim Harrod says there are plenty of people who have flight experience who would jump at the opportunity to fly one of these for the country.

    I hear that the Air Force is taking newly winged lieutenants and “volunteering” them to a UAV assignment for their first tour.

    Why doesn’t the Air Force or DOD hire people with military flight experience to fly the UAVs?

    Become A Marine Pilot

  11. Dwayne Says:

    This truly brings up a valid point. When they developed some of the new tech ground robots they had the Soldiers train on them forever and found that the controls were too complex for the Soldiers to become proficient in a timely manner. Thus when the Soldiers suggested the controller be switched to an X-Box controller a 9 year old kid kicked the crap out of an enemy force scenario training exercise. Unreal! Noted flying UAV is not a HALO video game so make no mistake, I agree with Norman “Those are real people down there” Also drawing from the experience of the retired force is an excellent idea. I would switch service branches for the opportunity to fly period, regardless of it being a UAV or Raptor. I was passed over for flight Warrant officer as a Blackhawk Pilot having scored a 90 on the flight test, and being highly reccomended by a CW5 combat rotary wing pilot. Atleast you all got the chance to actually fly. The military could end the conflict with the experience they have between retired, active, UAV, and fighter pilots. They should let some of these expert Ace Combat 5 pilots run actual squadron missions. You would be truly amazed at the talent this generation has to offer.

    17 yrs Active Service Member

  12. Jonathan Says:

    hey I’m 17 right now in high school, and I have wanted to be a pilot since I was a little kid, Then I got Glasses and that dream was shot to hell. But I think it would be an awsome career to fly these things for a job. I totally agree with Dwayne. I have ace combat 5 and other games similar, including flight simulator games on the PC and even though I have no Flying experience because I’m too young, I still think there should be some short of way to do this for a living instead of just wanting retired pilots. Because I do think we have potential just from playing video games, and it does give us the basics, does it not? Is there some way I can fly these things for a living? Please let me know

  13. James Says:

    If anyone is interested in a solution to the Air Force problem, look at the Army. We currently fly the MQ-1B, with missiles, and our safety record is comparable to that of the Air Force. However, we do it with an all enlisted crew with no formal aviation training. While it is a prerequisite to fly a tactical UAV (RQ-5,RQ-7) prior to coming to the MQ-1B program, manned time is not required (although it is helpful).

    Jonathan, as the son of a fighter pilot, I always wanted to be a fighter jock too. But I have my mom’s eyesight so I was in the same boat as you are now. I now fly these things full time with a very promising career path ahead of me. If you are truly interested, contact your local Army recruiter and ask about the 15W MOS. You won’t be disappointed.

  14. Don Nalley Says:

    I believe you will find more fruit in your replies and work if you replied in the same fashion as Jim. Without anger.
    No one denies that you are trained but a UAV pilot must have a host of skills.
    I’m a systems engineer never sat much in a cube, always on line during a mission when the operator had no clue! This UAV deal will take pilots, software guys, photography experts, weather men, am I geetin through. Who holds the joy stick doesnt matter if the joy sticks broke.
    I understand what you are saying but there is room for the rest of the guys in this business and if you are training pilots carry on! I’ll be on the runway “when it dont fly”

  15. Sean Says:

    This is great. I havn’t graduated high school yet but becoming a UAV pilot has been my number one choice for a career path. i hope they do make a UAV pilot career field that would be fantastic!

  16. Sean Says:

    oh yeah, and robert, it is a lot harder than you think. you are dropping missles through a very tight air space. its not a video game

  17. stuart goldhawk Says:

    I’m very sure that this is the way of the future ,i am a big fan of flight simulator i wonder if i will qualify for the uav pilot scheme i am probably to old , very interesting article will follow

  18. Tommy Says:

    A response to Jim Harrod:

    You’re absolutely correct. My grandfather told me that if they gave him a place to eat and sleep he’d do it for free. He’s a retired command pilot w/ 27 years of AF experience.

  19. Ryan Says:

    If I got a UAV on my drop at the end of UPT I think I might put a bullet in my brain. In all honesty I believe it would be worse than flying a heavy (at Id really be off the ground). Training to become an AF pilot is one of the hardest things anyone could do. However, it’s also one of the most rewarding. A UAV would be a smack in the face after working for so long at what you though would fulfill your dreams. I agree that they serve a great purpose. I think that purpose could be served with retirees and experienced civilian pilots who want to do the job though, not 2nd Lt’s who are being forced to. Let the young guys do the real thing, I’m sure when they’re old and ready to settle down many of them would be happy to fill a UAV slot later on. Maybe Im coming at this with a little bit of bias (PPL with an application to OTS soon), but I sure as hell dont want to fly a remote controlled airplane for the 10 years Id be stuck in with wings.

  20. Jlb Says:

    The University of North Dakota has a BS in UAV piloting and works with the Army. It would be a good place for someone in high school to look at attending if they are interested in being a UAV pilot. At U of North Dakota, they practice with the Army’s permission in military airspace. They also have both an Army and Air Force ROTC there, as well as regular commercial aviation training.

  21. UND Plants Seed of No-Pilot Airliners - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] to point out that, right now, the military is the primary career opportunity for UAV pilots (see UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence), but lets be honest, the no-pilot airliner is just around the […]

  22. UND Plants Seed of No-Pilot Airliners | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    […] to point out that, right now, the military is the primary career opportunity for UAV pilots (see UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence), but lets be honest, the no-pilot airliner is just around the […]

  23. eric s Says:

    Thanks for being a dick whoever edits this blog I found my information elsewhere.

  24. No-Pilot Aircraft Go Vertical & Hover - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] And it seems to work well in fixed-wing aircraft that fly high in the controlled airspace (see UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence   and UND Plants Seeds of No-Pilot Airliners ). But down in the dirt and among the trees […]

  25. No-Pilot Aircraft Go Vertical & Hover | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    […] And it seems to work well in fixed-wing aircraft that fly high in the controlled airspace (see UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence   and UND Plants Seeds of No-Pilot Airliners ). But down in the dirt and among the trees […]

  26. Rik Hall Says:

    We are currently making a documentary for the History Channel US, and looking for retired UAV pilots. If Dan or anyone else with experience of flying UAV’s is interested in talking to us and hearing more about the programme, please contact me at Many thanks

  27. Don Says:

    Hey Rick,
    When you find a Tiger Shark XTS pilot send him my way when you are thru if he needs a job…

  28. Uan Says:

    Just my 2 cents… I have been involve with UAV’s for the pass few years. Piloting these machines are fun actually but comes with a very big responsibilities. But what i see here is not really a big problem. To me, UAV pilot will have to train on RC models too. Its the basic of all for UAV training. Flight Sim guys would have to fly RC too.. In some case, the basic is always left out. Combine them and you will get a skillful UAV pilot. But then again, its not for everyone sad to say…

  29. Don "Rocket Tech" Says:

    This is a vast wide open passage for every skill in the book.
    I personally have been assisting and involved with getting flight data transfered to all the groups that require such information.
    Pilots are scarce and like Uan said…you gota spend a little of your own money on RC’s..crash and glue a bit until you can read the wind for take off and landing.
    Once it’s in the air atomatic flight takes over on the bigger uav’s and thats where real pilots come in with all the background they have reading the airspace knowing the rules and monitoring the gages. A little piece or slice for everyone. As a tech I can understand the competition between the pilot groups. Smart pilots will compliment one an other and share flight information as techs.
    Ground Control is an enormous trade in itself and the more gadgets we strap on this bird…The more specialists will be needed to keep it all going… Rejoice Pilots there is plenty of work for all applications.

  30. Uan Says:

    Agreed Don. Like here in Malaysia, we practice something different as we here try to make things as easy as possible. So the Uav pilot just assist on take off and landing where there is another operator to take care of and monitor the airspace. We work together as this is much easier to do as training for new pilots do take time. Uav pilot can also help on the payload operation as the controls are similar of an Rc.

  31. Norman Says:

    UAV flying as a career.

    No squadron boss wants anyone on his team that doesn’t want to be there – nay live for the opportunity to be there. The skill-set required for UAV ops is related to fixed wing flying but often unique in its demands. The UAV aviator must be proud of what he does and well motivated, not using the job as a run-through post before he gets to ‘proper’ aviation.

    Current and retired aviators of all flavours have a great role to play in the development of the role, but they would be the first to admit that this is a new game and the qualities it requires are subtly different to those we use as bird-men who’s feet leave the ground.

    As ever, an open mind and a willingness to allow what they have learned elsewhere to inform what they do is essential.


    -Currently setting up a civil UAV operation in the UK.-

  32. Don Says:

    Keep an open mind Gents, there are many sorted aircraft out there and they are multiplying like fish. Old High School buddy once told me that one needs many lines in one’s business to survive.
    I can’t believe that this net isn’t humming like a hornet nest with input.
    Norman we have just accomplished the same thing you are now doing in the US where we are also considering a little play ground for wheeled vehicles. I’m not saying you should do this and have no intention to keep your feet on the ground what i am saying is….You have alot of water around the UK, how about that know unmanned water diver. Any way just crunched the nose on my RC jet this morning and yes it’s being glued for the third time. I’m planning to fire a few rockets from it by using an additional speed controller on a seperate channel for the 2.5 volts that I need.
    Argh tech stuff..sorry..
    This is the hunt for the lost UAV pilots Article The holy grail. I’m with UAN grab a pair pilots by an RC giant scale and try it out! “Futaba” has a great simulator for $199 Learn to not crash there first

  33. Zoran Says:

    I think it’s time for the military to upgrade their UAV screens to 3D. Pilots would wear high quality 3D glasses/goggles (possibly nVidia), which might be unusual at first, but it would be far worth it because the pilot would have a much more realistic view. Basically the video feed would go into some sort of a splitter and then into a 3D projector or a 3D TV. It would be stupid not to try this :)

  34. Norman Says:

    Don’t you find that passions get in the way of $ and cents? The USAF trained more UAV pilots last year than it did fixed wing pilots, why should that matter?
    The UAV is here to stay and a the new skill-set required to serve that platform is the one that will be used to determine selection criterion.

    The guys advising the recruiters should be UAV qualified and experienced with the talents to select and train, not ex-flying generals with excellent war stories and a bunch of vested interests.

    This is a new field, let’s not call the artillery to ask how we should select aviators nor necessarily use aviators just because they fly to define the development pathway of the UAV.

  35. Norman Says:

    PS – thanks for that Don, many lines – I like it…

  36. Don Says:

    Looks to me we have to many wooses out there!
    Get into to this discussion, no one here bites?
    But what we will do is target you +- 3 METERS FROM 50 MILES OFF MOVING IF YOU CANT BAT IT AROUND WITH THE REST OF US. Now thats accuracy compaired to your Fathers hand while getting a good ass whipping.Mine was all over the map!

    Just got out of a meeting with a bunch of brilliant young men one hell of alot smarter than me and this snowball is starting to rool.
    “Frequency spectrum radio analyzer radar geeks”.
    “GoGo Gadget tinker & build pinnocio coocoo clock guys”.
    Camera servo gimbal SLR back-lighting appeture junkies.
    Man this place is more littered than Davey Jones’s Locker with tech fields.
    Anyway keep them remotes flying boys I’m a 55 year old adrenelineaholic and like flying upsidedown. Got serious questions..Post it!

  37. Don Says:

    PS: This could be as good as UAVEPEDIA if I dont have the answer to your question?
    “Just a minuite”
    I ask someone who does know and get back to ya!
    High Regards All
    Rocket Guy

  38. Dillon Says:

    Ok, i work on the intel side of the UAV community and i once had a question as to why pilots need to be flying UAVs, and after having it explained it makes sense. Being in a cockpit, and actually flying, gives you a sense of awareness of other people in the air. If you are in a stack of 10 planes, you really dont want some 18 year old kid who’s never been in that kind of situation bringing the entire stack down because he wasn’t paying attention. Essentially, its a matter of the lives at stake of maned aircraft, and if you’ve never flown, you will never have that kind of situational awareness. Now, as far as fighter pilots being douchebags with an over-inflated sense of self worth, thats a topic for another discussion.

  39. UAV Next Step: Autonomous Aerial Refueling - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] previously discussed (See UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence, UND Plants Seed of No-Pilot Airliners, and  No-Pilot Aircraft Go Vertical & Hover) it may […]

  40. Thomas @ Says:

    Not sure if my first post actually submitted, but I’m excited for where the UAV community is headed. While it might be a difficult time for pilots while we grow through these growing pains, eventually the process will be streamlined, and UAVs are really penetrating and spreading over the market in all sorts of interesting ways.

    UAV pilots, from now into the future, will always be in demand, if not a growing necessity.

  41. sonadavinci Says:

    Like many unemployed pilots with a desire to help my country, I’ve been extremely interested in trying to get into UAV’s for any agency using them for any one of the dozens of missions they are well-suited for. I’ve got 3500 hours and varied experience in pistons, corporate jets, a VLJ and several multiengine turboprop models, and a significant chunk of time as a civilian CFI before that.

    But it seems to be a closed club: Must be a former military pilot, must have a SECRET or TS clearance, must have previous UAV experience, etc. I’m now in my early 50’s and paid a lot of dues to get what I have after finally escaping a fallback career as an Architect, and I don’t want to let aviation just slip away. I’d be ecstatic to fly a UAV.

    So to hear now that there’s a UAV shortage really grinds my beans. It’s always very easy to rationalize the opinion that only a military pilot could fly a UAV when that’s your background. That used to be the mantra for the airlines, decades ago…(

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