Profile of an Air Force Drone Pilot

Becoming an Air Force Drone Pilot Is Harder Compared to Other Services

A soldier preparing to launch an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
••• Ed Darack

The growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the military has ushered in a new age of remote-controlled combat, and all of the U.S. service branches are using them.

The Air Force, naturally, is one of those services, but unlike their counterparts, the Air Force has gone further to limit who can fly UAVs. That means, depending on your education level and career ambitions, you may have a little more difficulty landing a career in this field compared to the other services.

Duties and Responsibilities

Unmanned planes are at the forefront of gathering aerial intelligence around the globe, so in addition to being a skilled operator, the pilot must be able to analyze intelligence imagery in order to make snap decisions about when to pursue a lead or get out of dodge. Although flying a UAV seems like it would be similar to playing a video game, the consequences of every pilot's actions are deadly serious. UAVs like the Predator can also be equipped with Hellfire missiles, meaning each UAV pilot must have the mettle to decide if and when to pull the trigger on someone half a globe away.

Military Requirements

Unlike its sister services, who have all decided the best way to deal with demands for UAV pilots is to make it an enlisted career field, the Air Force currently insists on holding out for commissioned officers only. That means to fly a UAV in the Air Force, you'll need a college degree, though not necessarily a pilot's license.

Enlisted careers in UAVs are hard to get because battlefields are complex environments that involve other aircraft and communicating with soldiers and airmen on the ground. Plenty of enlisted aircrews already deal with that complexity, but the added element of remote control has prompted the Air Force to take a cautious approach.

Education

Because Air Force UAV flyers must be commissioned officers, a trip through one of the officer training pipelines—such as four years in the Air Force Academy, or a few months at the Officer Training School (OTS) for those who already have a degree—is the first step.

After that, the airman may be sent to an Air Force base for specialized instruction and training in UAV piloting.

Career Outlook

If your heart is set on working with UAVs, the Air Force surprisingly may not be the best choice at the moment. Because of the stringent requirements, you may have difficulty finding opportunities to head straight into UAVs after officer training.

Add to that the exclusion of enlisted airmen from the career, and those who come right out of high school looking to get into the UAV field may be tempted to head over to Army, Navy, or Marine recruiters, with good reason.

On the other hand, successfully getting into the field may make your credentials look all the more impressive, particularly when you embark on a civilian career, so you should talk to a recruiter about your prospects if you are interested.