Flying Air Force Drones: Pilots No Longer Required

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Ethan Miller / Getty

Two Air Force personnel operate an MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aerial vehicle, from a control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

For more than half a century, pilots have been considered the essence of the Air Force. But in reality, they're just a tiny slice of the service. They account for only 13,202 of the 324,191 active duty personnel wearing Air Force blues, and the service is now buying more unmanned than manned aircraft. It's a trend that experts say will only accelerate. So this week the Air Force, acknowledging that it no longer makes sense to spend $1 million training a pilot to fly drones from a desk halfway around the world, declaring that future drone drivers will not have to be pilots able to fly manned aircraft. "This will certainly be a cultural change," Brigadier General Lyn Sherlock, a top air warfare planner, said of the shift, which was announced during the annual convention of the Air Force Association, the service's non-profit booster group.

In the first eight months of 2008, Air Force drones have logged more than 80,000 hours flying nearly 4,500 missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. While most were surveillance — transmitting video back to their ground-based controllers — many involved launching missiles at enemy targets. "The combat contributions of unmanned aircraft systems in today's fight have surpassed all expectations and hold even greater promise for the future," said General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force's new chief of staff, in announcing the staffing shift.

See photos of the history of the Air Force here

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