Could dual-track pilot careers save Air Force pilots?

A return of flying sergeants? Air Force says no despite too few pilots

The Air Force will launch a high-tech training experiment testing both officers and enlisted airmen to prepare pilots for the cockpit faster.

But, despite a growing shortage of aviators, it won’t be a return to the wartime days of flying sergeants – at least for now, according to the Air Force.

The six-month initiative at a military reserve center in Austin, Texas will reportedly include 15 commissioned officers, and five enlisted airmen who have recently graduated boot camp.

RELATED: Air Force facing growing crisis in pilot shortage

The initiative, dubbed “Pilot Training Next,” will use virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, bio-metrics and data analytics to determine if aviators can be trained faster and cheaper using technology, an Air Force spokeswoman said in an interview.

The Air Education and Training Command’s latest training experiment, set to begin next February, is meant to find out if technology can help airmen of different educational backgrounds learn faster in the pilot-training pipeline, the Air Force said.

“We are going to use immersive technology to see how we can help people learn more effectively,” Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, Pilot Training Next director said in a statement. “This is an initiative to explore whether or not these technologies can help us learn deeper and faster.”

The Air Force, the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, confront a shortage of about 2,000 aviators – and of that about 1,300 were fighter pilots. Many have been drawn out of the cockpit by an airline industry hiring binge or may have tired of a high number of deployments overseas.

RELATED: Wright Patt,defense firm, work to protect weapons from cyber threats

Training military pilots takes time and money: Two years of undergraduate fighter pilot training costs taxpayers more than $1 million for each aviator.

Still, despite the unusual move of including enlisted airmen in the experiment, they will not advance to undergraduate pilot training, according to Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

For decades, the Air Force has reserved jobs for pilots to fly aircraft to commissioned officers who are college graduates.

However, to fill a gap of a shortage of aviators in wartime, enlisted pilots flew in World War I and World War II, historical documents show. Thousands flew in World War II alone, but still made up only about 1 percent of pilots, documents show.

RELATED: House defense leader at Wright Patt, says AF pilot shortage is growing

The Air Force has opened the door for enlisted troops in one area: Flying drones, which the service branch calls remotely piloted aircraft.

Since last year, the Air Force has trained enlisted airmen to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-flying spy drone.

So far, 11 enlisted airmen have earned their wings as drone pilots, and that number could reach 100 by 2020, Yepsen said.

Kenneth E. Curell, 65, a former Air Force and Air National Guard fighter pilot who became an airline and corporate pilot, said in an email he did not believe enlisted airmen should be pilots of manned aircraft yet.

“If the objective is to proactively address pilot shortages, then the Air Force needs to experiment with and implement other options to entice prospective pilot candidates into the (Air Force) and promote initiatives that directly address areas pilots have identified as retention barriers,” the Centerville resident said. “Air Force leadership has not institutionally affected areas pilots perennially identify as retention barriers.”

Consequently, he added, pilots have “lost confidence” initiatives put in place to address the pilot shortage will stay beyond the next round of senior level leadership.

An F-22 Raptor demonstration pilot in the cockpit of the stealh figther before flying in the Vectren Dayton Air Show in 2008. TY GREENLEES/STAFF FILE PHOTO
Photo: Staff Writer

Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.

Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.

X