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Attrition rate down for unmanned aircraft pilots

Sep. 9, 2013 - 05:28PM   |  
A student pilot flies an MQ-1 Predator simulator as part of his training. The Air Force is facing a shortfall of pilots, but attrition rates have improved in the unmanned community.
A student pilot flies an MQ-1 Predator simulator as part of his training. The Air Force is facing a shortfall of pilots, but attrition rates have improved in the unmanned community. (2nd Lt. Logan Clark/Air Force)
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The attrition rate for unmanned aircraft pilots during training is down, but it is still higher than the rate of manned aircraft pilots.

Compared with this time last fiscal year, the attrition rate for unmanned aircraft pilots has dropped from 33 percent to about 25 percent, said Maj. Ted Shultz, remotely piloted aircraft specialty manager. That compares with an attrition rate of about 16 percent for manned aircraft pilots.

When the training began in October 2010, it was the same as for manned aircraft, but the Air Force has adjusted the instruction and screening specifically for unmanned aircraft pilots, Shultz said. Now, more people are completing the training because they better understand what it entails.

Shultz and other Air Force officials talked to Air Force Times last month about a wide range of issues brought up by Air Force Col. Bradley Hoagland, who wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington about how to better develop unmanned aircraft pilots.

Hoagland argues that the Air Force needs to do a better job prescreening for unmanned aircraft pilots in order to bring down the attrition rate.

“According to current AF policy, commissioning sources do not incorporate psychological or emotional testing into the rated prescreening or selection process for UPT [Undergraduate Pilot Training] or Undergraduate RPA Training (URT),” Hoagland wrote. “Rather, this psychological testing is only conducted as part of a baseline medical screening process that only determines whether or not the person is rated (or pilot) qualified.”

The Air Force recognizes that it needs a standard prescreening test for both manned and unmanned pilots, so the service plans to use the Pilot Candidate Screening Method, currently used for nonrated airmen trying to cross over to a rated career field, for everyone who wants to be a rated officer, Shultz said.

There is no time frame yet for the testing to be implemented.

Along with the attrition rate, the Air Force is facing a projected shortfall of incoming rated officers for both manned and unmanned aircraft, said Lt. Col. Stuart Rubio, chief of rated force policy. By October, the service expects to be short 227 rated accessions, including pilots, combat systems officers and air battle managers.

“This is much more than an RPA issue and, whether or not it is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend, we are actively addressing it with the creation of the Accessions Strategy Working Group,” Rubio said in an email.

Hoagland also points out that fewer unmanned aircraft pilots are promoted to major than fighter, bomber and mobility pilots, but Rubio said the Air Force has begun to address the disparity by opening 49 slots at Squadron Officer School to unmanned aircraft pilots.

“While the historic promotion rates for RPA pilots referenced in the study are much lower than the average, our short-term programs (increased RPA slots and RPA specific guidance to the promotion boards) has driven the rate up in the last two years,” Rubio said. “The rates for promotion to major, lieutenant colonel and colonel now meet or exceed the Air Force average.”

The unmanned pilot career field is at roughly 85 percent of its manning requirement, Shultz said. Once it reaches 100 percent, more unmanned aircraft pilots will be able to pursue professional military education opportunities.

But Hoagland argues that there is more behind the low promotion rate than PME. When demand for unmanned aircraft surged in 2008 and 2009, not enough airmen volunteered to fly them, forcing commanders to select pilots for the job. Most commanders sent captains who were in the “bottom half” of the eligibility pool.

“Some of these pilots had multiple downgrades or failures on their annual checkrides; some were unable to upgrade from cockpit to aircraft commander due to below average airmanship; others did not have the ‘right’ attitude or personality that fit into the weapon system climate; and others had discipline or quality of force issues,” he wrote.

Not everyone sent their worst pilots to fly unmanned aircraft, said Col. Doug Nikolai, director of operations force management.

“Other bases took that edict and they said, ‘No, they want our best to be in the RPA field,’ so to the chagrin of those guys striving to be the best fighter pilot they want to be, they were put in the RPA career field,” Nikolai said. “So you got a mix across the RPA career field. I would say as a trend, yes, probably the most guys went to the lowest common denominator, if you will, but I don’t think that was whole thing across the board.”

Still, pilots who cross over from one airframe to another — regardless of whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned — are at a disadvantage to other pilots because they are less far along in their careers, Nikolai said.

“If I’m an F-16 guy, and I start out as a lieutenant, I’m building credibility and I’m building expertise in that weapons system, so as I do that, I’m getting recognized as a strong member in the squadron: I’m getting better strats [stratification], I’m getting better OPRs [officer performance reports], I’m getting better jobs, a flight commander job,” he said.

“Now I go to a white jet [training aircraft] or an RPA, I’m kind of starting over, so now I’m kind of at the bottom of the pile again. Instead of a flight leader instructor pilot, I’m a wingman again. So as you come to a board across all your peers, your records don’t appear to be as strong.”

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