Written by Dabney B. on Thursday, March 22nd, 2012
When you sign up for the military, there are usually a few things that you can expect. If you enlist in the Army, it’s safe to expect plenty of exercise and some weapon training. If you go for the Navy, well then you can expect to spend a lot of your time around boats. For those ambitious individuals looking to join the Air Force, the expectation is that, with enough work and dedication, recruits can one day jump in a cockpit and soar through the skies.
Well, that was the expectation. Nowadays, the dream of one day flying a plane may have been reduced to just that: a dream. Somewhat surprisingly, we may very well see an Air Force wherein most of its pilots have never set foot in a plane.
How is all that even possible? One word: drones. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also known as UAVs or drones, are becoming more and more popular in the USAF. Just last year the Air Force claimed that it would train more pilots for drones than for fighter jets and bomber aircraft combined. Emphasis on drone technology is only expected to grow in 2012 and the years to follow.
Not only is the Air Force hiring more prospective drone pilots, but some of the conventional pilots are actually being pulled out of their cockpits and put in front of computer monitors for drone training. For those who had their sights on real piloting missions, this has been a crushing realization.
As demoralizing as that might seem, even this gray cloud has its silver lining. Would-be pilots who couldn’t make the cut due to poor vision or physical limitations are now getting their chance to fly — even if their aircraft is thousand miles away in the Middle East.
This new technology is forcing many to restructure how they think about the Air Force. It’s a shift that calls to mind the Internet boom of recent decades. The Internet caused some growing pains for few, and the popularity of this new technology was hard to accept for others, but it’s impossible to deny the success of the Internet — and much like it, the unmanned drone.
The Air Force has changed, and it is continuing to evolve as technology changes the climate of aerial warfare. Could the Air Force one day replace all F-35 and C-130 cockpits with remote controls? It is a disturbing and reasonable question, one that we may find the answer to in upcoming decades.
For all of the advances in drone technology, there is one x-factor that we can’t discount: the human element. We may be able to remotely control spy planes or even satellites, but no amount of technology will ever be able to replace the experience, instinct, and passion of a flesh-and-blood pilot.
This conflict between innovation and tradition, technology and instinct, is one that many Air Force pilots will undoubtedly struggle with in years to come.
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