In an effort to stem the loss of its overworked and overstressed drone pilots, the US Air Force has introduced a new program to try to convince existing pilots to stay with the service as well as rapidly bring aboard new ones. The plan includes pushing a fresh crop of “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” (RPA) pilots in drone squadrons as early as August and offering existing pilots a $15,000 bonus per year starting in 2016.
As Ars reported in June, the Air Force is facing a potential mass exodus of drone pilots. The New York Times reported that a “significant number” of the current approximately 1,200 RPA-trained pilots who fly the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones were approaching the end of their current service obligations and had stated their intentions to leave the Air Force. Meanwhile, the training program for new drone pilots has only been producing about half the number needed to meet the Air Force’s manning levels—putting more stress on pilots and causing the Air Force to move instructors back to daily flying to fill the gaps.
The demands of flying combat missions a world away on long shifts without being actually deployed overseas (most Air Force drone pilots work from Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nevada), and of having to switch gears to daily home life after such missions, has been a drain on the morale of drone pilots. As more pilots have left, more pressure has been placed on the remaining pilots. In a press release issued by the Air Force this week, Secretary of the Air force Deborah Lee James said, “We now face a situation where if we don’t direct additional resources appropriately, it creates unacceptable risk [to drone operations]. We are working hard to put solutions in place to bring needed relief to our Airmen and ensure our actions show their value to our mission.”
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