Signs of New Aviation Era are Unmistakable

By Scott Spangler on January 30th, 2012

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


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6 Responses to “Signs of New Aviation Era are Unmistakable”

  1. David Says:

    I have no doubt that UAVs will continue to grow at an increasing rate, and that it will have a tremendous impact on aviation as a whole. That being said there will still be pilots for a very long time to come, in the aircraft.

    They said there were more UAV pilots trained than fighter and bomber pilots combined, but what they don’t point out is that fighters and bombers are a small percentage of the number of pilots trained period. There are way more pilots in airlift platforms.

    I still think we will have a couple of manned aircraft to include the next generation bomber. While many jobs can be filled by a computer, there is simply no replacement for a human being in the cockpit at certain times. Besides that, there are very few platforms with only a pilot in the plane, and if you are going to carry other people, why on earth wouldn’t you carry a pilot or two.

    UAV’s are the wave of the future, but they will not be adopted as quickly as some people would like to think.

  2. John Fair Says:

    Too bad the rest of the world has yet to jump on this drone band wagon. Maybe they know something the U.S. has over looked. Like drones would be cannon fodder for even WWII era fighters. They fly straight and level, they fly very slowly (WWI era fighter speed) and would put up absolutely no fight at all. Kind of like shooting down a WWI blimp.

    While the rest of the world buys U.S. foreign sale F35 the U.S. transitions to a drone air force. Forgetting that starting with WWI the side with air supremacy almost always won the war. If the U.S. is counting on drones to be their air superior fighter then we all lose.

  3. Jabber S Says:

    It will be a very long time, if EVER, that a commerical aircraft will be pilotless. If we aren’t running subways and busses that way, why would someone hop into an airliner on a commercial flight without a pilot?

  4. Christopher Says:

    UAV’s are the future for mail transport, defense, etc. But when it comes time for me to get on an airliner and travel to another city, I need some “skin in the game.” When it comes to human civilian transport, there should always be a qualified pilot at the controls of the airplane, even if the auto-pilot is in control most of the way!

  5. deacon of noise Says:

    Drones are in ascendency until the sad day when one of them fails and downs an airliner. It is not a matter of if it will happen, but when will it happen. Data link redundancy did not prevent the runaway drone last year over the East coast, neither did it prevent a top secret spy drone to falling in Iranian hands. Drones should be restricted to war zones, or restricted military airspace. They should not ever share the airspace with airliners, and they should be separated from such airspace by large buffer zones.

  6. Justin Says:

    Wow it amazes me how uneducated people are about drones..honestly I think that is going to be the hindrance to implementing drones into the NAS. First of all, these drones should not be compared to a WWII blimp..the reaper (aka predator b) can fly at speeds of 250 knots and guess what? They’re developing a predator C that will have a jet engine and fly even faster and carry even more payload. Also the comment about drones not flying in the same airspace as airliners..guess what? We’ve been doing that and do it every day in Afghanistan with great success! Unfortunately the public obviously knows very little about these aircraft and their capabilities and that ignorance is going to lead to delays in implementing new technology that could actually save lives and money.

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