No, The Air Force Isn’t Really Bringing Back Enlisted Pilots

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A weapons loader assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, salutes as 180FW F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot.
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker.

Enlisted airmen may be taking to the skies, and this time they’ll be in the pilot’s seat — for a little while, at least. The Air Force plans on launching an all-volunteer pilot training program on Feb. 15, 2018, that will include enlisted airmen as well as commissioned officers, Air Force Times reported Dec. 6.


But, don’t break out the bubbly just yet. In a November internal email, 2nd Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy announced that only 15 officers and five enlisted airmen would be selected for the six-month training program, titled the Pilot Training Next Initiative. 

A copy of the email first surfaced publicly Dec. 6 on an unofficial Facebook page for current and former enlisted airmen.

“Enlisted volunteers will be pioneers in innovating Air Force aviator recruitment, selection, and training processes by demonstrating the potential of non-college graduates to succeed in a rigorous pilot training environment,” Leahy wrote.

The letter suggests that, far from a return to the days of “flying sergeants,” the training initiative is less about teaching enlisted airmen to fly and more about fielding new techniques to see how quickly service members can be taught a new career field. And what better place to start than something as complicated, and desperately needed, as aviation, considering the service has been grappling with a severe pilot shortage?

“We’re starting with pilot training because we have such a huge need for pilots,” Marilyn Holliday, a spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command, told Task & Purpose. “This study is not looking at changing our pilot force, but rather it is exploring new ways to effectively and efficiently deliver training.”

Related: Here’s 2 Solutions To The Air Force’s Pilot Retention Problem »

In recent years, the service was hit with a “quiet crisis” as scores of pilots left the ranks, run down by a grueling optempo, lowered flight hours, and lured away by the prospects of better pay following a commercial airline hiring blitz. The protracted retention problem left the airpower-centric service 1,500 aviators short — roughly 1,000 of them fighter pilots — by April of this year, Business Insider reported in October.

Currently, only commissioned officers (the Air Force does not have warrant officers) are eligible to serve as pilots, which puts a four-year college-degree barrier in front of would-be sky jockeys. According to the email, Leahy and his staff have identified 250 possible candidates for the initiative. The deadline to apply online is Dec. 15, after which point eligible applicants will undergo a series of tests before the final  personnel are selected.

The training plan is designed to provide information to the Air Education Training Command, “on the potential for enlisted members to train to fly modern combat aircraft,” the email notes, and will culminate with the airmen taking a solo flight in a T-6A, a single engine turboprop aircraft the service uses to train aviators.

A T-6A Texan II, typically used during the Air Force's Undergraduate Pilot Training program.U.S. Air Force photo

The experimental course takes about half the time as Undergraduate Pilot Training — a yearlong basic aviation course — however, graduates are expected to measure up to their peers who make it through the traditional program.

"The plan for this six-month program is to explore the technology available to produce a student, similarly-skilled to a UPT graduate," Holliday said. "Since the program is in its early stages, results will need to be reviewed. Although we’re excited about the potential of this program, at the end of six months, if the officer student is not prepared to move on to the next stage of training, we will determine the appropriate placement in traditional UPT."

After passing the course, the officers selected for the program will earn their pilot’s wings and go on to more specialized training. As for the rank-and-file airmen?

“On the enlisted side, they’re coming from basic training, and then going into this program, and then they would go back to their specialty they were chosen for during basic training,” Holliday said. “They’ll have flying hours to go toward civilian pilots’ licenses if they choose.”

As part of the initiative, the Air Force will stand up a training detachment in Austin, Texas, where instructors will use new tech like virtual reality and a heavy reliance on data and analytics professionals to train students.

“The intent is to have groups of students with different learning backgrounds to find out how different technologies can be effective for different types of learners,” Holliday told Task & Purpose. “Our focus is on how Airmen learn, not necessarily what they learn, exploring  technology and how that technology can produce better and faster learning.”

The program is currently in its pilot stage, but if it proves viable, it could be used to spool up airmen on other military specialities, though what those could be is still unclear. “We use the word pioneer, and honestly that’s exactly what they are.” Holliday said.

It’s unclear at this point if the new training initiative might herald a return to the days of enlisted aviators — and what that could mean for the service, considering the pay differences and the dichotomy that could emerge between officer and enlisted aviators, divided by salary and position, doing the same job side-by-side.

The news comes a year after the service graduated its first enlisted drone pilots following a lengthy period of study amid plans to expand its fleet of enlisted drone operators, Air Force Times reports. However, when it comes to piloting armed unmanned vehicles, like the MQ-9 Reaper, the price of admission is still a bachelor’s degree — and that remains the case with aviators for now.

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