Air Force wants drone pilots, but incentives lacking, says report

Pilot trainees fly an Unmanned Aerial System at Holloman Air Force Base
Pilot trainees fly an Unmanned Aerial System over a training range at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2009.

The Air Force is looking for a few good drone pilots, but not enough are lining up to fill those spots, claims a new report from an Air Force pilot who researches recruitment issues. One reason is trouble with the selection and training problems. But the other reason: Young pilots who join the military see the drone track as a dead-end career.

Colonel Brad Hoagland, who's spent 23 years in the Air Force, took year-long break to study the system from the outside as part of a fellowship at the Brookings Institution. Hoagland went back to flying C-130s this summer, but in a newly released report — the result of his year-long study — he explains a few reasons why top brass in the Air Force need to give their Remotely Piloted Aircraft program a closer look. 

The Air Force's drone program has been growing quickly — it's staffed by a little over 1,300 pilots as of this year, and is due to take in about 350 new pilots by 2017. "We've been building the platform faster than we can fill them with operators," Hoagland previously told NBC News

Though the cadre's been growing, drone operators don't get promoted as quickly as other specialists. "What we've seen is that the promotion rate from captain to major is 13 percent less than their peers," Hoagland told NBC News. In part, that's because resource-stretched drone programs don't offer pilots as many opportunities to pursue a second advanced degree or officer training — one key factor in being selected for a raise, Hoagland explained.

Also, the Air Force could do a better job selecting its pilots, Hoagland told NBC News in May. The Air Force has in-house scientists researching human-machine interactions, but Hoagland writes that the organization as a whole is "hesitant to embrace" a "new pilot prescreening methodology" which will take into account that "the next generation of aviators is extremely tech savvy and more reliant on mobile devices and gaming (consoles)." He points out that a wealth of existing psychological data and multiple choice tests — not currently standardized across the board — could be put to better use. 

You can read Hoagland's full Brookings report here.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.