Track services

Plan to give enlisted pilots new jobs ‘on track’ after complaints

The Air Force is fixing a bureaucratic blunder that gave enlisted drone pilots a boost as they say goodbye to the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

Five years after the service began allowing enlisted Airmen to fly an aircraft for the first time since World War II, these crews are preparing for new assignments as their reconnaissance drones retire.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. and Air Force Chief Master Sergeant JoAnne Bass outlined their plan for these Airmen in a November 2021 letter. They offered pilots options to become officers, which requires a college degree, or to pursue enlisted jobs outside of the cockpit as a flight engineer, aircraft loadmaster or refueling specialist .

“We felt calm; we felt cared for and cared for,” the enlisted RQ-4 pilots wrote in a drafted plea to federal authorities that was obtained by Air Force Times. “We volunteered for this experiment, we never committed a fault of service, and the Air Force decided to go a different route. Understandable.”

But for those 74 Airmen, the promises did not materialize.

Many waited eight months before being asked to list their three favorite jobs. Some were cleared for service as long as they remained in the field of remotely piloted aircraft, the letter said. Another one or two have been allowed to train for non-RPA jobs.

“We had people who met the commissioning criteria who applied for the advice and were immediately turned down. We’ve had people who applied for other enlisted crew member positions who were immediately rejected. We even asked recruited pilots to apply for jobs that are usually short-staffed [and] be denied,” the Airmen wrote.

Over the summer, they received bad news: Many were disqualified for most of the nearly five dozen careers offered to them instead of flying the Global Hawk.

Most of the positions were in understaffed areas related to information technology or communications, one Airman told the Air Force Times. They were suited to early and mid-career Airmen, with few jobs senior enough for those transferred from the Global Hawk company.

In short: enlisted pilots with two decades of experience in multiple areas of the Air Force were deemed too experienced or high-ranking for the opportunities available to them.

“We could not hold another enlisted aircrew position, nor could we return to our former career field,” the Airmen added in the letter. “Instead, we would have to compete with the rest of the Air Force during the annual refresher cycle.”

This would pit the small group of enlisted Global Hawk pilots against nearly 1,200 other enlisted Airmen, NCOs and senior NCOs for jobs that may not match their skills or interests.

Their complaints caught the attention of officials at Air Combat Command, which oversees the drone force, at the Air Force’s highest echelon.

In an exclusive interview Tuesday, Chief Bass told the Air Force Times that after she and Brown signed their memo last year, another decision was made elsewhere to reinstate enlisted pilots back into the regular process. of the Air Force to move Airmen to new jobs.

“That wasn’t the intention,” Bass said. “We’ve worked very hard over the last few weeks to make sure we get the train back on track.”

Every enlisted pilot will have the options outlined in last year’s memo, she said. Yet those who want to become officers must still meet the requirements to commission and pass this council selection process.

“Senior Air Force leaders are committed to retaining and supporting enlisted pilots as they reach the end of their initial enlistments,” service spokeswoman Rose Riley said Tuesday.

Unit commanders who oversee enlisted drone pilots will work with the Air Force Personnel Center to personally manage their “deliberate” transition to new jobs, she added.

The pilots simply want the Air Force to honor its original plan or let them retire quietly.

“Allow us, towards the end of our careers, to leave our great legacy gracefully after our 20 years of service without having to go through another change of career field, which would ultimately cost the service more money for us train,” the Airmen wrote. “For those who are still ready to serve our nation, we ask that the obstacles each of us have faced over the past 10 months in our attempt to pursue other career fields be removed.”

The Air Force has reduced its Global Hawk fleet from 36 to 10 in recent years. It plans to retire the rest of the drones in 2027 after more than 20 years in service.

Military officials worry that planes won’t survive advanced anti-aircraft weapons and believe that satellites and other jets can collect the same data. Instead, aircraft manufacturer Northrop Grumman is repurposing the drones as test assets that track US hypersonic weapons under development.

The last RQ-4 of the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron left Beale Air Force Base, California in July. That squadron could close by the end of the year, the Air Force said in a press release.

The 319th Reconnaissance Squadron from Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, planned to field 20 of its Global Hawks by the end of July. Grand Forks will fly its remaining RQ-4s around the world over the next few years.

The in-demand aircraft can hover at 60,000 feet for more than 12 hours without refueling, while collecting images and electronic signals from nearby assets.

“We have been eyes and ears in the sky during some of the most difficult times in American history, which the public will never know about,” the enlisted pilots wrote in their draft letter.

“We were there when the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan caused communication problems, and our planes had to take over,” they said. “We provided footage of what was happening in and around Bagram [Air Base].”

And over the past few months, Global Hawks has been capturing real-time footage of the unfolding war in Ukraine from high-altitude trajectories over Eastern Europe.

“We received the tasks and executed them flawlessly,” the airmen said.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News-Post (Md.), The Washington Post, and others. .