Congress questions low UAV pilot promotion rates

Congress wants Air Force leaders to figure out why unmanned pilots don’t get promoted as often their fighter, bomber and cargo counterparts, according to an Air Force Times report.

Lawmakers inserted into the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act a mandate to receive answers in 180 days from Air Force leader.

Air Force Times reported that the past five promotion cycles have shown that unmanned pilots have lagged behind other pilots in three of those five promotion cycles.

Air Force pilots feared that a transition to flying drones could have harmful effects on their career. Many fought against being taken out of the air and stuck on the ground.

However, the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator have played prominent roles in the wars over the past decade. Because of the demand, unmanned pilots have logged long hours from bases in Nevada, California and North Carolina.

Those long hours mean the pilots don’t have the same amount of free time to climb up the career ladder with activities such as completing Master’s degrees or traveling to Alabama for Squadron Officer School. Without those resume boosts, the UAV pilots have suffered, a pilot to Air Force Times reporter Jeff Schogol.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • Lance

    They dont get promoted they dont risk there lives like pilots do and or dont do as much as regular pilots nor train as much.

  • Nicky

    This is why the USAF should Reopen the Warrant officer career field for ROV/UAV Pilots. A warrant officer is more cost effective than a commissioned officer. On the plus side, it would give more opportunities for enlisted who want to fly and be ROV/UAV pilots as well.

    • Jsmith
    • zak

      Great idea and there are many other career fields that could be done the same way so that there is a military person in the slot instead of a government civilian or a contactor.

    • Nicky

      That’s why I think the USAF needs to reopen the Warrant officer career field for ROV/UAV pilots, Helicopter pilots and technical fields. It would open up more avenues for USAF NCO’s to move up the ranks to Warrant officer with those who have an associates degree. It would levitate the Top heavy Officer corp, who is being run by the fighter Mafia. On top of that a Warrant officer would save the USAF more money than a commissioned officer in terms of Lifetime cost. A warrant officer is cheaper to manage and run over an officer because for a Warrant officer, they are not concern about commanding units. They just want to do their Job and unlike a commissioned officer they are obsessed with one day commanding units. It often makes me wonder why the USAF is the only service without warrant officers. A USAF warrant officer would fit the bill for ROV/UAV pilots,Helicopter pilots and highly technical fields that an officer would not want to do. I do think that Congress should reign in on the USAF and force them to bring back Warrant officers.

    • El Guapo

      Why Warrant Officers? Army drones have proven to be significantly more effective than USAF drones, all while being operated by E-4s and E-5s in theatre. The accident rate on out of theatre piloted drones during takeoffs and landings is very high compared to Army drones where the pilot has visiual contact with the AC , especially on landings. Plus Army grunts have the added pressure of regularly seeing the grunts they support in the chow hall, they aren’t thousands of miles away. CIA drone operations now prefer former enlisted soldiers over former USAF officers(recently retired ISA, I know). Congress should be working on clearing the glut of officers in every field in our bloated USAF. The “Cult of the Flight Suit” strikes again!

    • Justin

      I agree with the the Warrant idea and/or the possiblity of having enlisted to the job. This goes back to the Air Force thinking that only pilots are smart enough to do certain jobs. Just like when TACP was created big AF thought only pilots had the understanding to direct air strikes from the ground. Now TACP is dominated by enlisted and is transitioning to dedicated non-flyer 13Ls for officers. It only took them 40 years to figure this out.

    • Hoy Evans

      i agree 100%

    • Edward

      Hear! Hear! I full agree with the Warrant Officer program.

    • Mike

      I agree!!!

    • Nick

      I agree with reopening the warrant officer program. The glory boys club will always rule.

  • mpower6428

    The airforce officer class is getting more and more desperate to justify that budget.

    give the ROV/UAV program to some ROTC class, enders game style, and let the brass fight for whats left. now thats entertainment.

  • Hunter76

    There’s no reason to have an officer pilot drones. An obscene waste of my tax dollars.

  • Mel

    Hmmm… I flew a D4d (desk, 4 drawer) during my USAF career, working 12-14 hour days as an wing CCE. One finds the time to get ahead. Yes, I laugh at the CSAF reading list, PME, advanced degrees, and the all-important “are you a member of the O’ Club?” requirement that SAC demanded for a general’s endorsement on an OPR.

    As for who can best fly a UAV, my fellow officers and I all think 12-15 year olds have the best hand-eye coordination. They wouldn’t care about promotion. They would just want high score!

    • Drew

      They need to enlist Bungie to make the killer app a launch title for the Xbox 720. Due on for X-Mas 2013. I’d put down $60 for it.

  • BlackOwl18E

    In my opinion they shouldn’t get promoted as often. They don’t sacrifice nearly as much as manned pilots do by going on deployment and spending time away from their families. They don’t train nearly as hard and they don’t risk their lives in the hot seat of combat.

    I think they should get moderately educated hardcore video gamers or enlisted personnel to pilot UAVs.

    • LtKitty

      Gimme an Xbox controller and a bag of Doritos and I’ll win the war.

    • SJE

      Gimme a break.

      Most AF pilots in the last few years are well out of any danger from the Iraqi’s, Afghan or Libyan forces they have engaged. Flying 20,000 ft and dropping a laser-guided bomb. Why can’t that be done by a drone?

      What is particularly galling is that this “risk” argument is used to justify officer rank for AF pilots. The real risks are to the Marines and ARMY aircorp flying helos and low altitude planes at the front lines. They get shot up, and killed.

    • tiger

      Hot seat of combat ? Where is this Phantom Air force These F-16 & F-15 guys have been facing. Most have spent 10 years doing circles in the sky waiting to get a bomb drop call. The Reapers are getting the kills. Even the B-1 & B52’s have had more real action Than the Mig chasers have in 20 years.

    • blight_

      Some UAV drivers are actual pilots seconded for the duty. Should they be penalized for doing so?

      Surprised the AF doesn’t do the warrant business that the army does.

      • BlackOwl18E

        One of my friends is an A-10 pilot who got seconded for UAV duty and I really don’t think they should be penalized for doing so because it is not their choice. From what I’ve seen pilots seconded for the duty are often very miserable. Any pilot of a manned aircraft would much rather be flying HIS aircraft. Like I said, I think it’s a waist of a perfectly good pilot and officer to make them do such a job. They should give it to the enlisted or just hire some video gamers to do it.

    • Warren Gaiennie Ret

      Simple Question.

      Have these trained personnel have the SAME options to get the Level of Training?
      If so, Why did they not get to training school?
      The system works for those with the Earned Ego, But if denied the chance then how can they also earn the EGO.
      Put one of the EGO Pilots in the UAV seat, Crash and Burn. Just try it, then learn to keep Mouth Shut, Open Brain. Did YOU also have to Fly the Sims BEFORE you got your New Bird????

    • TruckerGeek

      I was in the fire department for 8 years in the Air Force and we had one of the slowest promotion rates in the Air Force. “Risk of Life” obviously has nothing to do with promotions in the Air Force, nor should it. Besides, except for combat operations, Air Force pilots do not see combat, anyway.

      The article also talks about cargo pilots having better promotion rates than drone pilots, so obviously the whole argument about not being a “warfighter” is not valid. Pilots are just another job in the Air Force. The pilot cannot fly without a runway, cannot fly without fuel, cannot fly without food, etc. The pilots are more glamorous, which should have nothing to do with promotion rates.

      • BlackOwl18E

        The Air Force is centered around aircraft and pilots so the fact that they may wrongly-fully neglect the danger firefighters experience is understandable. It’s not justified, but it’s understandable.

        Let’s say the USAF buys remote control firefighting robots that don’t replace the role of human firefighters. Do you think that the operators of the firefighting robots who work with firefighters but don’t experience any of the same risks or dangers should receive the same promotions? Even if you answer “yes” I doubt most firefighters would agree with that and I don’t think that’s fair to those that actually need to jump into the flames to save someone’s life.

  • Hammer6

    In the Army, an NCO directs the operations of a tank, howitzer or infanry squad. Why can’t an AF NCO direct a UAV?

  • Dean

    I know! I still haven’t gotten any medals for my high scores on Doom. Plus I have 10K hours of microsoft flight sim with nothing to show for it. Not one call from the CIA.

    Seriously, though, the obvious point has been made about risk and skill. Some day in the future this blog will be discussing the lack of competent manned pilots. The point where UAVs outnumber manned aircraft is on the horizon. We will want young people good on the stick, follows orders, and doesnt think too much.

  • TonyC

    Pilots don’t join the Air Force to fly RC airplanes, they can do that as regular pilots in their spare time. UAV controllers should be an enlisted rating, same as for the US Army and US Navy. Then the point of this article would be moot.

  • Brian
  • Sensor op
  • NeoconBrony

    I dunno about the rest of the pilots, but they certainly need to promote F-22 pilots more than drone pilots, how else are they going to keep them quiet about their anoxia issues?

    • F. Eugene Barber

      Stop calling them drones. They are NOT drones. They are UAVs. A huge difference.

  • Mr. Guy

    If promotions are based on risking your life in combat (which cuts out the cargo jockeys), why don’t we see more generals and colonels leading infantry squads on patrols? I thought promotions were based on how well the mission got done, not some romantic vision of danger. Our pilots may do a dangerous job, but it’s pretty safe compared to the ground-pounders who are actively getting ambushed, IED’d, and generally shot at as part of the daily grind.

  • Jay D Levine

    I am a Dissabled Veteran with a Commercial/Instrument Rating, I am quite Capable of Flying a UAV/ I have prior UAV Experience ,US Army 20 Years why not give the old Soldiers a go at the controls, I even fly Microsoft Flight Sim Online,why not?

  • River Rat

    AF NCO’s at one time ran the AF UAV programs, however they became a threat to the AF Officer Corp as they would be in a position to threaten AF fighter seats, and in hance promotions. The US Army Aviation Corps is the most cost efficient organization within the military and mostly because of the Warrant Officer Corp, cheap professionial labor instead of AF primadana as in Cpt’s, Maj. LTC’s, Col’s and in some cases BG Generals, total abuse and waste. In comparison an Apache, Blackhawk, and other RW’s, is a more complicated flying fixture than a F-15, 16, 22 and 35, and etc: due to the simplicity of fly by wire technology, not thru fly by your seat. Yes I do know I used to fly RW and AB both platforms at one time or the other. USAF wake-up and give us a break save us a dollar and bring back the WO’s the real professionials.

  • Jacob

    The thing about drone pilots being in high demand sounds about right. If we’re keeping the same guys sitting behind the screen flying the drones all the time that’s not much incentive to get them promoted and doing other stuff.

  • Is it just me? But, I am okay with Drone pilots getting less promotions especially since I know a few of them have 0 actual flight hours in actual planes. #my2cents

    • tiger

      That is where you are wrong. They do

  • Mastro

    Another argument to fold the Air Farce back into the army.

    • tiger

      Well lets not go nuts here…… Basically the issue seems to be The UAV guys spend more time on the sticks than going to staff college. Why? Not enough of them. Without the check marks on the files , they get passed over.

    • F. Eugene Barber

      I agree–I was in SAC during Korea and Dugout Doug ran the Air Force anyway even though it was a separate force. Roll the Navy pilots and mechs. in one Force too. Army, Air Force, Marines, and Naval Air Forcecan all be one.

  • BD Cooper

    Peobably because the selection committee is tired of hearing how guys in lounge chairs that go home to their families every night have it tougher than guys flying actual combat missions

  • tmb2

    In the Army promotions are first and foremost based on filling authorized slots in the force structure. For both enlisted and officers, the promotions are insular to that particular MOS. An infantry NCO may have a higher promotion rate than a signal NCO, but that’s because the infantry makes up more of the Army and needs to promote more people. Once those guidelines are set, the individual NCO must have a competitive amount of time in service, time in grade, education, and demonstrated skills and attributes through their evals. Officers must also show similar abilities both in what they’ve done and what the Army thinks they will be able to do for them in the future. UAVs are a continuously growing capability that isn’t going away. To not promote someone because they’re a UAV driver is shooting yourself in the foot years from now when you wish you had some UAV-smart guys in the upper echelons of the Air Force. The Army doesn’t discriminate because you’ve done your time on foot, in a Bradley, or in a Stryker. I’ve seen officers who were specialized and well-rounded all make it to the top. The Army knows it needs them all.

  • tmb2

    I truly hope the Air Force isn’t basing its promotions on the “sexy” jobs and who is in the cool kids club. Transport pilots are probably the most overworked officers in the Air Force and see the most danger day after day. I hear you guys about F-15 pilots being deployed and in danger of crashing into a mountain, but the UAV pilot is probably in more danger driving to work right now on the highway. Neither is in particular danger from enemy action these days and we’ll probably be in a few more UAV wars before we get to that romantic dogfight the fighter pilots live for. I disagree with promoting based on risk and danger because those are temporary and based entirely on circumstance. They have nothing to do with the individual’s abilities unless they find themselves in a situation where they get to demonstrate them. Simply getting shot at does not make you a good leader in any branch of service.

  • kbmgjb

    They’re not promoted as often as their “fighter, bomber, and cargo counterparts” because they aren’t counterparts.

  • Daniel Wisehart

    Just because you can fly a UAV in the Middle East from Nevada does not mean you can take it off and land it from Nevada. That work is still done on the ground by–largely civilian–crews living and working in the Middle East.

    A pilot who works as an flight instructor gets just as much credit as when he is flying missions on the front. Advancement is not about risking your life but about military experience that trains you to be a leader. You don’t learn to lead by bleeding.

    UAV pilots should be promoted as fast or faster than airplane pilots because they are more effective as pilots in achieving our military objectives and they get more active experience in less time.

  • retired 462

    I guess that congress doesn’t have any immediate problems that require more attention (lol)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • Richard Jean

    what does risk taking have to do with getting promoted? promotion has more to do with proficiency than risk taking.

  • rudy

    As one of the original “Drone” pilots who flew “UAW’s in Vietnam, I was a EW…..Not a pilot. WE controlled the Drone from a mother ship DC-130……As a retired Lt. Col. I still can sit at a consel, with a cup of coffee/cigaratte and do it as well as a young 2nd Lt……and a lot cheaper. There are thousands of retires who would love to do this..

  • rudy

    As one of the original “Drone” pilots who flew “UAW’s in Vietnam, I was a EW…..Not a pilot. WE controlled the Drone from a mother ship DC-130……As a retired Lt. Col. I still can sit at a consel, with a cup of coffee/cigaratte and do it as well as a young 2nd Lt……and a lot cheaper. There are thousands of retires who would love to do this..

  • JR Chapman

    O M G. Seriously? I guess we know the IQ of Congress!

  • van25B

    So how do UAV pilot promotions compare to other non-pilot career groups? I would like to see that comparison, as a retired Air Force navigator.

  • James B.

    If an enlisted man can drive a nuclear sub, why can’t he fly a remote control drone?? Does not make any sense.

  • Threatcon

    I am currently a drone pilot dual certified on both the MQ-1 and MQ-9. I have also flown T-38s as a UPT instructor pilot, have been an operational fighter pilot in both the A-10, and F-15E. To set the facts straight, most of the drones flown overseas in combat zones are launched by Air Force pilots and sensor operators not by contract employees. I myself spent 5 months dodging mortars at Balad AB, Iraq working every day for the 5 months I was there. True when flying missions from CONUS locations we are not subject to exposure to actual combat but spending time yo-yoing to a tanker in a low intensity conflict and dropping a GBU from altitude doesn’t really expose you to too much danger. I will state that during takeoff and landing from the deployed airfield does expose the combat pilot to ground fire.

  • Threatcon

    As far as pace of operations, in the four years I flew the A-10, I logged approximately 1200 hrs. In one year just flying the MQ-9 I have logged 1300 hrs. The job is demanding and never ends. We fly 24/7 every day of the year supporting troops in the field. In my estimation, for what it’s worth promotions should be based on job performance, period. It is time the Air Force stops promoting personnel based on other criteria, i.e., advanced degrees which in most cases does nothing to improve combat capability, volunteerism, and a bunch of other BS.
    Every job in the Air Force is important, period. If you do you job well that is what matters!

  • Murph

    Don’t blame congress they just sign off on what’s put in front of them by the promotion board. The list is backed for the last 55 years by Col. Steve Canyon mentality. As to risk, it is not a consideration. Look to the navigators and other rated crew members that have flown missions in high risk missions and have gone on to see the pilots get the promotions. LOOK TO WHO OWNS THE SHOP! It’s been a pilot’s Air Force since 1947. It’s deja vu all over again. The UAV guys are now considered as non-pilots as the Nav’ and other ratings have been in the past.

  • Kamuela

    I am not in the Air Force, and I am not familiar with the Air Forces aviation promotion system. I’m just a lowly former Marine Infantrymen. IMHO: wouldn’t it be prudent for the Air Force to create a Warrant Officer program (like they had years ago) for a specialized field for UAV drivers. Now with regards to promotions between a UAV and Manned Pilots: It’s obvious to me at least, in my simple way of thinking what the difference is between a UAV Pilot and a Manned Aircraft Pilot….with regards to promotion, Manned aircraft pilots should trump UAV pilots ALWAYS! manned aviators are taking the risk, they have complete out of the cockpit situational awareness and can respond immediately when they’ve identified threats. No doubt UAV’s have there place on the battle field, it’s proven It works, but there is a difference between some guy with his Ass on the line, compared to some guy sitting in a cubical out of reach of SAMs, AAA, small arms and weather…to name a few.

  • Kamuela

    Now with regards to proficiency & leadership…If I had a choice: I’d rather take my orders from someone who’s proficiency & leadership experience was formed & molded having his ass on the line, experiencing the hardships, challenges, sweat, and bloodshed rather then someone who’s experience was that they were proficient in all aspects of UAV operations to include engaging enemy combatants. There’s is a very deadly reality between someone who’s leadership ability was molded from their training, education & having their Ass on the line experience compared to someone who hasn’t.
    I’d rather chat with a pilot providing CAS overhead rather then someone in a cubicle at some base on the continental U.S..
    There’s a direct connection between the guy on the ground and the guy in the air. It makes all the difference in the world when your Ass is out there hanging and he/she is up there supporting you. I know, I’ve been there. Semper Fi

  • Kamuela


    Mind you folks this is my own humble opinion: Do know that regardless what I mentioned in my last two comments, I believe anyone in uniform serving his/her country who has shown the leadership proficiency, integrity and moral character to lead and manage soldiers / airmen, should be promoted regardless what they do.

    Semper Fi


    The original sin was committed when the USAF pilot union/mafia once again insisted that only someone with a union badge (wings) could touch the stick. The real question down the line is what are you going to do with the drone pilots after Afghanistan?They are now trained only to fly drones. You cannot fly them in the US.
    Sounds like the same story as with navigators a few years back.

  • candor

    No self respecting stove piper would want to be assigned to flying drones.

  • Kamuela

    OOORAH to the stove-pipe boys!

  • VietVetSteve

    Before everyone takes off on a non-stop “put-down-parade” on drones, drone pilots, etc., let me share this with you. I served in the drone reconnaissance program during the Vietnam War; I’m now a military historian. Later this year you’ll see on Amazon and elsewhere an approx 500 page book on every aspect of drone recon in Southeast Asia. I will leave a sample here of what Lt. Gen John Vogt, 7th AF commander and air war boss the final three years we were in SEA, had to say about drone recon and its contribution to bombing No. Vietnam into rubble during the LINEBACKER II Christmas bombing offensive in 1972. The code name for the drones was BUFFALO HUNTER.

  • BCC

    When has a UAV pilot ever had to eject?!? I know… It was just a joke and I couldn’t pass it up. If anybody is counting votes, transition it to a Warrant program like the Army helo pilots. Any officers in now can continue as they are or pursue command routes while the new WO’s learn from the outgoing O’s.

  • VietVetSteve

    Probably the most interesting aspect of this whole debate is the fact that after 40 years nothing has changed. Forty years ago AQM-34 recon drones were either flown remote control from an X-band radar in a van, or with the same system built into a DC-130. The drone pilot in the ground station was required to be a rated pilot. Conversely, the same job in the airborne launch/director platform was manned by guys with Navigator ratings. Having been an enlisted aircrew member, I am aware of the realization that anyone flying in a plane through either semi-permissive or non-permissive airspace is taking a huge risk that 95% of most Americans will never experience. My main concern is transparency, objectivity and consistency(TOC). If USAF says RPA Pilots ought to be commissioned officers, TOC must be obeyed. My concern about having different ways of treating manned vs. unmanned aircraft pilots, be it formal or informal, is you end up on a slippery slope. If we argue the point of which role has the greater threat to loss of life, how would an F-16 pilot feel if HQ decided a pilot flying an unarmed, slow MC-130 Combat Talon has greater potential for loss of life, so they ought to be promoted quicker?

  • guest

    Flight suit inserts

  • BWN

    As a current military pilot. . . I will go against the grain and say the RPA world is a tremendous asset, and their pilots are doing THEIR job to the best of their ability. Anyone who has truly integrated with RPAs, and benefitted from their work will agree. No, they are not on the front line. Neither is finance. There are a lot of desk jockies that make the system (albeit bloated) work. But not many of them will watch over you, relay information for you, gather intel, or kill a threat for you. If they changed the name to remotely Guided aircraft, would that help? No “pilot” confusion. They serve a purpose. . . they are part of the battlefield….why the ass pain?

  • Jimmie

    Perhaps you are right when you say the UAV chaps dont train as hard or risk their lives remote flying the drones but should that be a detriment to their careers when the AF forces them to leave the actual cockpit? Congress is right to look into this OR the AF should not abuse its pilots this way. I like the warrant officer suggestion.

  • aliomalley1213

    As a future RPA pilot (oh boy!), I would like to say that as far as I know, RPA pilots have an increased risk for PTSD and their IFS washout rate is much higher than that of the typical pilot route. However, to caveat that, more pilots will washout in UPT rather than at IFS. I understand that we aren’t in actual combat, but why should that impact the promotion rate? I don’t want my officer career to be decided for me before I even enter it because I am “inferior” to a real pilot. Oh, and for the record, I would LOVE to fly manned planes, but because I am too short, I am stuck flying RPAs.

  • VietVetSteve

    Our new ops officer (never flown a drone) visited us during a Vietnam drone mission one day. The radar van was cramped and you had to duck if over 6′. It was powered by a diesel generator outside. Our visitor displayed no enthusiasm and kept looking at his watch. He casually asked, referring to me being farthest from the door, “so, if the generator conks-out, how do you keep control of the drone?” I said, “I’ll be 1st out the door to get it back on-line, and we’re o.k. if it’s less than 90 seconds. He wasn’t impressed; you could tell he was thinking, “yeah…sure you can?!?” The pilot asked his boss if he wanted to fly awhile, and he did. Ten minutes later the radar was plunged in darkness and you could hear the generator spooling-down. Hell! The pilot knew better and flattened himself against the back wall, but the major was smack-dab in-the-way. I was out of my seat, put my boot in the middle of his back, climbed over and was out the door in 3 seconds! I fired-up the generator, raced inside, bypassed the radar’s 3 min warm-up timer and we reaquired the drone with 25 sec left. Never doubt an NCO!