Enlisted pilots have not been in the Air Force since its inception in 1947. They were not paid well, they did not have many opportunities for promotion, and were treated “harshly” in training. Even the title of the book about enlisted pilot heritage is called They Also Flew.
The lack of commissioned officers to handle global aircraft transport and other monotonous work led to three generations of enlisted pilots. Non-commissioned officers were usually certified to fly in the civilian world, but not qualified to be commanders.
In the grand military tradition of throwing enlisted bodies at work no officer wants to do, the Air Force will bring back the tradition of the enlisted pilot to help augment their drone pilot numbers.
After “months of study,” the Air Force is working to fix the issues of its drone operations programs. Drones have become the signature tool in the Global War on Terror in recent years, operating in intelligence, counter-terrorism, and surveillance roles. Drone pilots complain they are overworked and stressed out while Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says Air Force commanders demand more and more drone operations.
Now enlisted personnel will be allowed to pilot the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone and may eventually be permitted to operate the missile-firing MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones. The Air Force says the initial step of opening the Global Hawk is because it is easier to operate.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh ordered Air Combat Command to initiate a six-month implementation plan for the new pilots.
In days gone by, enlisted pilots usually were assigned to fly light reconnaissance and artillery-spotter aircraft, cargo aircraft, and medium- and heavy-weight bombers. In 1942, Congress passed the Flight Officer Act, which replaced flying sergeants with Warrant Officers, which were also discarded by the Air Force. In 1943, all enlisted flyers were promoted to the new “Flight Officer” rank. The enlisted legacy is a long and storied one. Enlisted pilots taught Charles Lindbergh to fly. One of the last members of the enlisted pilot training program was Gen. Chuck Yeager, who would become famous for breaking the sound barrier later in his career.
Drone pilots already complain that they are held in lower regard than traditional fighter pilots and that allowing enlisted airmen in will only increase the stigma.