Drone Pilots Get a Serious Raise from the Air Force

A new classNew Air Force Secretary Deborah James has made it clear that it’s about time the service’s drone pilot force gets paid. She announced Thursday that she was more than doubling monthly incentive pay for drone pilots from $600 to $1,500.

The demand for Air Force drones such as the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reapers has not waned since U.S. troops have moved out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If anything, it has created an increased demand for their surveillance capabilities in places U.S. and coalition troops had been deployed.

At the same time, drone pilots are fleeing the Air Force for a host of reasons — overwork, lower bonuses than manned aircraft pilots and outside opportunities. Drone pilots are operating aircraft about triple the number of hours as manned aircraft pilots. This has a lot to do with combat requirements as well as the cost of flying manned aircraft versus the drones.

No matter what the cause, it has created a major problem for a service that remains committed to keeping drone pilots as officers.

James promised that she would continue to work to relieve some of the pressure on the drone pilots and beef up their incentive pay.

Brendan McGarry wrote a longer piece examining the Air Force’s options here.


About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • BlackOwl18E

    They don’t need actual pilots to operate drones. That’s a waste of talent and they need to stop doing that. They don’t even need officers as drone pilots. What they need are a bunch of video game nerds that have a patriotic sense of duty and have had a decent background check.

    • Sev

      I know right. 20/20 vision to stare at a computer screen for hours on end? Frankly drones might be the perfect thing for the out of shape recruits to do. Let them play Elite: Dangerous as a test for entry into the program. lol

    • William_C1

      I suppose some officers will still be needed to set up the flight plans and that sort of thing. Otherwise I see no reason the Air Force should require officers or true pilots for the job. The UAV’s operator really shouldn’t even have to bother with the thing much until it starts its patrol route. Eventually the software will reach a point where the UAV will “alert” its operator if it sees something of interest and otherwise nobody has to keeping staring at the screen.

      Change the requirements as such and it shouldn’t be that hard to find some part-time UAV operators.

      • t1oracle

        “Eventually the software will reach a point where the UAV will “alert” its operator if it sees something of interest”
        At that point, one operator will be in charge of a fleet (wing?) of drones and they will still be overwhelmed with work.

    • t1oracle

      They may need video game nerds, but those video game nerds better not be newbs. They have to be able to maintain situational awareness of a combat zone on the other side of planet, by staring at screens showing only a tiny spec of the landscape at a time. If they they make a mistake people die and an expensive piece of military equipment may crash and burn.

      They won’t have to worry about getting KIA, but they will have to watch death every time they go to work, and think about the consequences of their actions on human life.

      • BlackOwl18E

        Hence the background check and patriotic sense of duty.

    • ucavlover

      the Army uses NCO’s and automated take-off and landing systems, resulting in less large UAV accidents
      the USAF won’t let pilots fly UAVs if they’re not in perfect physical shape, wth

      the next generation of UAVs will fly itself, but it’ll be the Navy that fields them first in serious capacity. and they’ll be operated by the E-2 wings

      now that UAVs are really making a difference in cost and capability, the USAFs idiotic choices have come to bite it in the rear end. a shame for those who died or were wounded for life because of bureaucratic choices

      • smoovops

        The US Army fly small UAVs. They’re not comparable to an MQ-9 or other remotely piloted aircraft the Air Force uses.

        • Lurker

          Not true. The Army uses the MQ-1C Grey Eagle which is derived from the Predator/Reaper airframe and carries a similar weapon and sensor payload.

          • IronV

            Yes. But that’s the only RPA the Army flies that is comparable to the Air Forces fleet. The point is still valid. You need real pilots to fly the Predator and Reaper.

    • Chris

      Fitst they wanted to create a medal just for being slotted for this job, now the incentive pay is being by bumped to 1,500. Hostile Fire Pay is only 500. How does this make any sense?

    • douglab2

      The washout rate is very high. Im afraid you are underestimating the difficulty of navigating throughout controlled and potentially hostile airspace, while evading enemy radar. Its not MS flight simulator buddy

  • UAVGeek

    I’ll do it. Bring on the applications.

  • rtsy

    Next is the pay raise for the guys actually getting shot at right?

    • Randy

      heck yeah. Concur.

  • oblatt22

    The Airforce used to lead to a lucrative job in the Airlines. Drone pilots training leads them to a waiting job at Arbys.

    • rgc

      you are totally uninformed…..

      • t1oracle

        I’d really like to know what the civilian sector equivalent is.

        • oblatt22

          Chuck E. Cheese is hiring I guess.

        • BlackOwl18E

          Radio Shack salesmen of remote control toys!

        • Baron von French

          Future package delivery by Amazon drone. ;)

        • BW3

          $100k jobs are out there for UAV guys/gals

          • blight_

            Has the government begun outsourcing more of its UAV work to contractors, which then buy up numerous ex-government guys and charge 5x the price?

  • knight

    Get a grip on reality( fragile as it may be to some of you), control of a multi million dollar WEAPON operating over a foreign country possibly killing civilians unless discretion, intelligence and timing are all co-ordinated at the right place and time. I wouldnt trust a gamer” to do that if I was……… Well, suffice to say I wouldnt!

    • Vaporhead

      That’s where your ignorant lies. You have a preconceived thought about what a “gamer” is. Someone who plays video games often have very good hand eye coordination and objective thinking, all of which are required to pilot a drone. It does not take an officer with a degree in basket weaving to fly a drone.

      • Dylan

        No, but an officer and a pilot has decision making skills that others do not. These are still multimillion dollar aircraft with giant wingspans that go up in the air and fly with other traffic. Until the controls are simplified to a Launch button and a Land button and the thing can run totally unattended in between pressing those buttons, it is ridiculous to think that we can pick people for this job that don’t know everything a pilot knows in order to react to what happens in the air.

    • IronV

      The only intelligent post on this thread.

    • blight_

      Whether you like it or not, many soldiers are “gamers”. I guess that disqualifies them from their duties?

      Recruiting random people off of Steam to do the job is a terrible, terrible idea.

  • joe

    No reason to have rated pilots operate UAV’s. Waste of billets.

  • Dfens

    I don’t see why the Air Force thinks upping the incentive pay from $600 to $1500 will do anything to add pilots. Clearly if they believed capitalist incentives worked they wouldn’t pay defense contractors more to f up and drag out the design and development of airplanes than they do if a contractor were to come in on-time and on-budget.

  • JBD

    The main issue is with recruits on a pilot contract. They want to do just that, pilot an aircraft.
    This usually refers to an A-10 or other fighter, maybe tanker if they want to transition to civilian commercial flights relatively quickly. Sure make the drone pilots officers, that is no issue. However, there are loads of qualified (officers) individuals that could pilot a combat drone safely and effectively. Half of the civilian engineering contractors would be ideal.
    Not to mention the coolness of being a drone pilot, It’s not like they are laughed at by the other squadrons… oh wait.

  • steve

    They deserve more pay just for the amount of crap they take. Most of the people posting here are incapable of doing their job, yet, are the loudest on how they don’t deserve anything.

    • Dfens

      When I design an airplane flight deck I try to lay it out so it accommodates as wide a variety of people as possible, because it is better if their skill level is the deciding factor in whether they can or cannot fly the airplane than their size. It seems to me that remotely piloted vehicles take this concept a good ways beyond that. Too bad they don’t let old people fly these things. I’d love to pull the trigger on those islamo-terrorist mf’ers, and, thanks to XPlane, I’m a damn good sim pilot. Too bad even with that bonus the “waste, fraud, and abuse” end of things pays so much better.

  • Wendy

    Sure up the pay and give them combat pay too! In fact they should all be recognized for what they do and what skills they bring to the table. Well maybe not because then they would just be paid without any flight incentives. Maybe give them some incentive pay for missing their kids soccer practice or spilling coffee on the way to a combat mission. Seriously, there are combat pilots out there that could use some additional uplift.

    • steve

      Here’s an example of what I was talking about.

  • xXTomcatXx

    Anyone know how this compares to the other services?

  • WRM

    Just train UAV/UAS/UCAV/drone/whatever operators from the ground up. Using actual pilots is a waste of money. Pilot training is expensive, and it teaches many things of absolutely no value to drone operation. It also requires that someone be pilot qualified…..who cares if someone has an ear problem which prohibits them from being aircrew…..that is a stupid reason to disqualify them from being non-aircrew.

    And $1,500/month bonus? That’s not lower than pilots of crewed aircraft, that’s far more bonus than I ever got as a pilot of a crewed aircraft

  • tos636

    I am retired Air Force non com (Jet Engine Technician). I’ve worked on a multitude of aircraft and can fly several aircraft successfully (in true to life simulators) However I would not deem myself qualified to fly drones into combat loaded with WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). I think a lot of you here are missing the more important point here. There is a huge difference between the stressful decisions that have to be made and the experience of a well educated well trained pilot has to make and “Gamers”. Sure gamers have the ability to successfully destroy their enemy but when they miss their target or have a lot of collateral damage its no biggie (sorry Maverick you lost this one but click new game to play again). Put those gamers behind the controls of a true combat drone and tell them they better be sure of their target and not kill innocent women and children or don’t hit that group of Army Rangers a mile away and see how well they can hit their targets then. Sure there are probably a few gamers who might be able to do the job successfully but I’d put my money on someone who has gone thru extensive education, training and psychological testing as pilots do.

  • tos636

    Now Reconnaissance drones. That’s a different story.