The US Air Force is hurting for drone pilots, and it’s willing to take an unusual step to make sure its unmanned aircraft are well-staffed: it’s letting the enlisted ranks fly. As of next year, non-officers can pilot the RQ-4 Global Hawk recon drone once they have the necessary training. The move (along with help from other branches) should give the Air Force more daily combat air patrols even as it grapples with the effects of budget cuts. It promises a morale boost, too, as everyone could get more training and better hours.
There’s precedent for this. Other branches already allow enlisted personnel to fly drones — the Air Force has just been persistent with its officer requirement until now. Also, this echoes the process that opened up ground spotting to non-officers. There are risks, of course. Enlisted ranks elsewhere rarely get to fly drones this big, and there’s a concern that this will diminish the prestige of flying in the Air Force. However, those sacrifices might be worthwhile if they keep officers from burning out.