"The RPA enterprise is doing incredibly important work and this is the right decision to ensure the Air Force is positioned to support the future threat environment," she said in an announcement on Thursday, referring to the acronym for remotely piloted aircraft.
Enlisted airmen will be integrated into the service's flying mission starting with the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone -- the high-altitude reconnaissance drone made by Northrop Grumman Corp. -- and suggested that over time they may also be flying weaponized MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers made by General Atomics.
"What we learn from flying Global Hawks with enlisted pilots under the supervision of rated officers will inform whether we apply a similar approach to other weapon systems," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said. "It is too soon to speculate on any expansion of enlisted aircrew beyond the Global Hawk program."
Air Combat Command will now develop a plan for bringing enlisted personnel into the RPA flying world -- establishing entry requirements, training plans, career path development, duties, compensation and an appropriate force mix, the Air Force said.
The announcement of an enlisted RPA career path comes a day after the Air Force announced it would offer Critical Skills Retention Bonuses of as much as $125,000 to officers who now fly the aircraft.
Both decisions are driven by the shortage of drone pilots. The Los Angeles Times reported in November that records show the services has been struggling with manning since 2007, as experienced officer pilots leave the service rather than try to make a career in RPAs.
Pilots who have bailed on the Air Force say the stress and fatigue that go with the job became too much. The service trains about 180 such pilots a year, but loses about 240 due to attrition.
The bonuses announced on Wednesday come as graduates of the Air Force's RPA training school approach the last year of their service commitment.
On Dec. 10, Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, announced a series of recommendations based on a study of the RPA career field Air Force needs.
Recommendations included increasing RPA manning and associated resources by 2,500 to 3,500 airmen and defining career tracks for both officer and enlisted RPA pilots and maintainers.
"We owe it to our airmen to remove the daily stressors that are responsible for the challenging environment they are operating in," Carlisle said in the official announcement.
James may have been signaling the change in September, when she told reporters at the annual Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference in Washington, D.C., that with "the right training and the right preparation" enlisted airmen would "do an excellent job of being an RPA pilot."
The last time the Air Force utilized enlisted pilots was 1957, wrapping up an enlisted flying mission that had begun with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1912, according to a release from the service. About 3,000 sergeants piloted aircraft during those 45 years, according to the Air Force, which in June 2014 honored the bygone NCO pilots Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Alabama, where a statue of Army Cpl. Vernon L. Burge, the first enlisted pilot, was unveiled.