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Drones Take a Seat at the Popular Kids’ Table

Written by on Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

New technology almost always brings with it new perspectives. Smart phones changed how we live our lives and the Internet irreversibly altered how we view information. Drones are no different. Drone technology and attitudes about these unmanned aircraft are both changing — and for the better.

When drones started off, nobody quite knew what to think about them. Are unmanned aircraft effective? Can pilots really fly a million-dollar aircraft with little more than a joystick and a computer screen? Drones went through the gauntlet in the Middle East, and they’ve proven time and time again that they are incredibly powerful, versatile, and useful aircraft. Drones aren’t just a passing fad, they’re here to stay.

The success of drones has prompted a shift in the way that pilots think about these unmanned aircraft. Originally, the USAF had a rough time filling all of the drone pilot positions, so much so that they had to force pilots out of real cockpits and into digital ones. Unsurprisingly, this lead to some disgruntled pilots and unhappy working conditions. To make matters worse, many airmen didn’t think of drone pilots as “real” pilots.

Now that pilots have had an opportunity to actually put a drone up in the air, they’ve discovered that it really isn’t all that bad. The Air Force recently surveyed 500 airmen who previously worked as pilots and then had to shift into a role as a drone pilot. They asked the pilots if they’d be willing to stay on the drone program, or if they’d rather be transferred back to the world of ejection seats and head-spinning g-force. A staggering 412 airmen volunteered to stay in the drone program.

For some airmen, the allure of a 500 mph fighter jet is just too great to pass up. Col. J. J. Jinnette, who formerly flew F-15s over Afghanistan, was quick to make up his mind: “I’m a fighter pilot. I love flying. You’re talking to someone who just buy antibiotics without rx loves flying.”

Surprisingly, Jinnette is in the minority. Maj. Ted (the USAF does not disclose the full names of drone pilots) attempted to explain the advantages of operating a drone. He previously flew F-16s, but after the USAF stuck him in front of a drone monitor Ted discovered that drones are his newest love.

For Ted, flying a drone presents a greater challenge that F-16s just can’t offer. He explained, “In an aircraft, you can look outside, and you know how high you are from the ground. You know that the guys I am supporting are over there and the bad guys are over there. But here I have a picture, and it shows me turning left, but I don’t feel myself turning. I don’t feel the speed; I can’t look quickly and see where everybody’s at. I have multiple computer screens showing two-dimensional information that I have to then mentally build that picture.”

Piloting a drone also gives airmen an opportunity to make a constant, profound impact in Afghanistan and abroad. Whereas conventional fighter jets are typically only deployed to a conflict when a situation demands it, drones are cruising through the air 24/7. Ted described life as a drone pilot as being “on the tip of the spear … And not just deploying weapons, not just dropping bombs; it will be doing the (surveillance), collecting that intelligence, and really feeding the fight for everyone.”

I have to say, this is a surprising turn of events, one that nobody could have predicted. Is the position of drone pilot the new dream job for US airmen? It kind of reminds me of nerd culture in America. Twenty years ago, nerds were shunned as socially awkward losers who couldn’t get a date. Nowadays, nerd culture has taken off as the new cool thing that’s perfectly acceptable. Is that what happened to drones? Are they the socially burgeoning nerds of the US military?

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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