Why Don't Drone Pilots Get More Promotions?
CREDIT: General Atomics
U.S. military drone pilots fly more missions per week than most fighter pilots do in months, but they don't get promotions as often as pilots of manned aircraft. That may change after Congress has required the U.S. Air Force to investigate the reasons why.
The growing swarms of robotic warplanes and their operators have taken on new importance by closely supporting U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks. Yet Air Force promotion boards have tended to overlook their contribution, according to an Air Force Times investigation of promotion data since 2007.
One drone pilot who spoke with the Air Force Times on the condition of anonymity blamed the long six-day work weeks and "minimal chances at leadership responsibilities" as part of the reason promotion boards have overlooked fellow drone operators.
There may also be other reasons. Drone pilots don't have to risk their own lives while remotely controlling Reaper or Predator drones flying thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or Iraq — even if their efforts save many U.S. military lives on the ground every day. That difference in risk still rankles among certain members of the U.S. military.
But the Air Force risks overlooking valuable officer talent among its drone operators if it can't figure out a workaround solution. Some drone operators represent former fighter pilots whose squadrons switched over to drones. A growing number of elite test pilots have begun cross-training on both manned aircraft and drones.
Appreciation of drone pilot contributions may become easier as the Air Force moves away from a traditional "fighter jock" culture — the Air Force already trains more drone operators than pilots of both manned fighter and bomber aircraft combined. And many defense analysts expect the latest-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to represent the last manned fighter aircraft made in the West.
The Air Force has 180 days to respond to the Congressional demand for investigation since the signing of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act on Jan. 2.