WASHINGTON — At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, becoming a fighter pilot is still a hotly coveted goal.
But slowly, a culture change is taking hold.
Initially snubbed as second-class pilot wannabes, the airmen who remotely control America’s arsenal of lethal drones are gaining stature and securing a permanent place in the Air Force.
Drawn to the flashy drone strikes that have taken out terrorists including Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and the terror group’s No. 2 strongman Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan, airmen are beginning to target unmanned aircraft as their career of choice.
It’s a far cry from the grumbling across the air corps a few years ago when Air Force leaders — desperate to meet the rapidly escalating demand for drones — began yanking fighter pilots out of their cockpits and placing them at the remote controls of unmanned Predators and Reapers.
The shift is critical as the Air Force struggles to fill a shortfall of more than 300 drone pilots to meet the US military’s enormous hunger for unmanned aircraft around the world.
Some airmen are even volunteering to give up the exhilarating G-force ride in their F-16s for the desktop computer screens and joysticks that direct drones over battlefields thousands of miles away.
The difference is often generational, but many pilots see drones as the future of air combat.
Drone pilot Major Ted began his Air Force career as an F-16 pilot, but shifted to flying drones and now says he will not go back to flying a fighter jet. He said piloting a drone is empowering because it has a direct impact supporting US troops in Afghanistan. The US military does not allow drone pilots to make their full names public because of concerns the pilots could be targeted.
Asked which is harder to do — manned or unmanned flight — he said that at times, he has been more overcome by the torrent of information pouring in during a drone flight than he was in the cockpit.
“In an F-16, to form a three-dimensional picture, I look outside,” said Ted, who flew F-16s for about four years before switching to armed Reapers, a drone that can carry Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. “But here . . . I have multiple computer screens showing two-dimensional information that I have to then mentally build that picture.”
To attract more drone pilots, the Air Force has created a new career specialty within the service and is ending the system that forced drone assignments on fighter pilots. The new system creates a separate training pipeline for drone pilots.
In a recent survey, the Air Force asked 500 airmen who started out as pilots but had been shifted to drones if they would like to stay on in the unmanned aircraft field. There were 412 volunteers. Those results, Air Force leaders said, show that while a new career field may take 20 years to fully develop, this one is on its way.
Despite the end of the Iraq war and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, top military leaders staunchly defend plans to boost the drone fleet to meet intelligence, surveillance, and targeting needs of US commanders in other hot spots, including the Pacific, Africa, and South America.
Budget cuts could slash that spending, but members of Congress have largely supported the unmanned aircraft programs and voiced little opposition to the drone fever that has gripped the military. The military’s spending on drones has grown from about $2.3 billion in 2008 to $4.2 billion this year.
Right now, drones complete 57 24-hour combat air patrols a day, mostly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and areas around Yemen and the Africa coast. The goal is to increase that to 65 patrols daily by mid-2014, with eight crews each. By 2017, the Air Force wants to have 10 crews per combat air patrol to meet staffing requirements and allow the drone pilots time for schooling, training, and other career-building time.
To staff 65 combat air patrols, the Air Force will need nearly 1,700 drone pilots and 1,200 sensor operators. Currently there are just 1,358 pilots and 949 sensor operators.