US Air Force faces RPA pilot shortage

Global Business

With more and more overseas missions depending on remotely-piloted aircraft (RPAs), the United States Air Force faces the challenge of acquiring — and keeping — enough pilots.

Karina Huber has this report.

US Air Force faces RPA pilot shortage

With more and more missions depending on remotely piloted aircraft, the Air Force is challenged to acquire and keep pilots.

The MQ-9 Reaper is the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced drone — or RPA — in use today. A sensor in the front acts as its eyes and, unlike a conventional aircraft, no one sits in it.

Pilots of the MQ-9 sit in so-called “ground control stations” that resemble cockpits, often housed inside trailers on Air Force bases throughout the southwestern United States. 

They control the aircraft remotely from those trailers as they engage in air strikes and surveillance operations thousands of miles away in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Holloman Air Force Base in the Chihuahua desert in New Mexico is a sort of boot camp for RPA pilots. Roughly 390 new pilots will be trained in 2016 to operate RPAs.

But that’s not enough. With the U.S. military increasingly relying on RPAs for surveillance and for military strikes, the Air Force faces a pilot shortage. 

Captain James, whose last name has been withheld for security reasons, trains many of the new recruits.

“The biggest challenge in being an RPA pilot is maintaining situational awareness without the tools of a traditionally manned aircraft,” the captain said. “So for instance there’s no cockpit to look out of. So our big challenge here is teaching the students to use the tools available to us in the ground control station to build and maintain that situational awareness.”

The Air Force has faced an RPA pilot shortage since at least 2007. It’s reportedly had some difficulty in both recruiting and retaining them. 

According to Lieutenant Colonel Steven Beattie, part of the problem is fatigue. 

“The manpower that we’ve had has been such that our crews are working six days a week, two days off and continuing on a rotating shift like that through holidays, weekends and everything,” Beattie said. “And they do that for three to four years at a time, without a break. That just kind of wears on you after a while.”

It can also take an emotional toll. Just because they are thousands of miles away from the action doesn’t mean they are disconnected from the mission. A Defense Department study found that RPA pilots suffer from the same levels of post-traumatic stress syndrome as traditional fighter pilots. 

To deal with the shortage, the Air Force has launched a multi-pronged strategy — offering bonuses of $15,000 a year, and lowering the number of missions from 65 to 60 per day to ease the workload. Some flight school graduates will also automatically be assigned to RPAs.

And the Air Force is also working to alter the image of RPA pilots. 

“We’re not a video game. We’re not a drone. We’re another platform at the Air Force’s disposal to employ air power and we’re out there doing great work for our nation,” Beattie said.

The U.S. Air Force states they expect to overcome its shortage by 2017.