Drone Milestone: More RPA Jobs Than Any Other Pilot Position

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line Nov. 22, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Christian Clausen)
An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line Nov. 22, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

The U.S. Air Force now has more jobs for MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones than any other type of pilot position, the head of Air Education and Training Command said last week.

"I never thought I'd say that when I joined the Air Force," Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson told reporters during a media roundtable at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. "So we're really in a much better footing with RPA pilot production in addition to just getting the numbers up," he said March 3.

For example, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper family of remotely piloted aircraft are slated to have more than 1,000 pilot operators, according to fiscal 2017 statistics provided to Military.com on Tuesday. By comparison, the highest numbers in any other aircraft are 889 airmen piloting the C-17 Globemaster III and 803 flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon, said Lt. Col. Tracy Bunko, spokeswoman for AETC.

The Air Force has expanded its RPA reach since it began training enlisted airmen on the RQ-4 Global Hawk. The service announced in 2015 it would begin training enlisted airmen to operate the unarmed high-altitude reconnaissance drone. It is currently training pilots through the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class, or EPIC, program as well as the Initial Flight Training program. Just Tuesday, the service announced the first 30 board-selected airmen to become RPA pilots.

RELATED: First Board-Selected Drone Pilots Announced

The service plans to bring on even more armed drone operators, officials told Military.com in October. To sustain such a boost, Air Combat Command intends to establish new operational centers for aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper as part of an ambitious effort to redefine what such a "base should look like" for operations, according to a lieutenant colonel involved in planning for ACC.

Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, will host a new MQ-9 Reaper group, the service said in January, but only for mission control elements.

In September, the Air Force announced eight potential bases to host new drone units in preparation for the transition. The service is conducting additional environmental studies at Eglin AFB, Florida; Tyndall AFB, also in Florida; Vandenberg AFB, California; and Shaw AFB to host a full MQ-9 wing, as well as a maintenance group and operations support personnel, the service said.

The service has not yet decided on the location for the remotely piloted aircraft units.

The Air Force is moving to an all-Reaper drone fleet, and will officially retire the MQ-1 Predator in 2018, it announced recently.

Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, head of Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, noted in a recent oped that pilots of all kinds remain in short supply.

The total force, manned-pilot shortage for the service -- as well as for the Navy and civilian airlines -- has become a national problem, Roberson pointed out Friday. But the Air Force hopes to bump up the total force pilot production line.

"We produced 1,108 graduates from our pilot training program last year; we're going to produce 1,200 this year," Roberson said. "And we're on our way up to producing 1,400 with the assets in the U.S. Air Force … and even that's not going to be enough to meet our requirements." He said the plan is to train 1,400 airmen in subsequent years.

On the fighter side -- in addition to procuring a new T-X trainer aircraft to replace the T-38 Talon, a contract anticipated this year -- the service is using older fighter aircraft to train pilots.

Two squadrons of F-16 Fighting Falcons will "transition into AETC and we're now going to transition them into the F-16 fighter production unit based in Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico," Roberson said. The F-16s are moving from Hill AFB, Utah, to make room for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Having those aircraft to train on will "increase our fighter pilot production rate from 235 [pilots] ... this year to 335 total force," Roberson said.

"That's going to help us in the short term just with fighter pilots, but we've still got a much bigger problem overall to address.

“On the pilot training side of the house, we’re as low as we could be because we’re short on pilots; if anything we need more production and more capability, so we’re looking at actually expanding the number of pilot training bases...to get after that pilot shortage,” Roberson said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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