Stripes to Stars: Enlisted Airmen Deserve to Become Officers Before They Become Pilots


“The one sure method of determining whether any individual has qualities which make him a successful leader in combat is to observe that man in combat.”
Board of Officers Report from the Second World War

The U.S. Air Force is presently debating the idea of enlisted pilots for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs, or what most of you call drones). The continuing demand for more RPA flyers, and our continuing inability to retain current RPA flyers, has precipitated a manning crisis, and this idea seems to provide a way out. I fundamentally disagree with this idea, not because I doubt the quality of our enlisted force, but rather because I wholeheartedly believe in it. I disagree with the idea because I believe in the principle of equal pay for equal work. We have many amazing enlisted airmen that will some day make great pilots. It would be an insult to these airmen to ask them to do the work of a lieutenant or a captain, with the exact same responsibility and personal liability, while denying them the rank, authority, and benefits that come with that responsibility. We already have a highly successful and very popular road to make enlisted airmen into pilots: It’s called Officer Training School (OTS). Instead of using enlisted pilots, there should be a broader OTS option for RPA sensor operators, with a streamlined selection process delegated to wing commanders. OTS has given our community many of our best flyers and our best leaders, and we desperately need more of both.

Recently, a lieutenant named Justin struck four terrorists who were on their way to attack our allies. This strike was remarkable, as he and his sensor made a very difficult shot — the kind of shot that our strategy has come to rely upon — and he made it look easy. The aircraft was perfectly positioned and completely stable, allowing the enlisted sensor operator in the right seat of his Predator to keep the crosshairs locked on the target like a steel trap. Even more importantly, Justin masterfully led his crew and stood firm when the Air Operations Center tried to rush the strike. His choice to stand his ground had just as much to do with his crew’s success as anything he did with the craft’s stick and rudder. And there is a reason why Lieutenant Justin knew how to command his crew and maneuver his craft so well as a still-junior pilot: Two years ago, he was Sergeant Justin, a Predator sensor operator.

While he was an enlisted Predator crewman, Justin earned the highest qualification possible — evaluator sensor operator, qualified to both teach and certify other crewmembers to operate the Predator’s imagery payload. He then blazed through his bachelor’s degree and earned a coveted spot in Officers’ Training School so that he could return to the RPA community as a pilot. Once he arrived in our squadron, he blazed through our advanced tactical training syllabus, a course that focuses on aircraft commandership and judgment, and now serves as one of our key strike qualified pilots. Accordingly, I fully expect that he will blaze through Squadron Officer School, given his drive, maturity, and innate capabilities. We will be competing with very lucrative offers from the burgeoning RPA industry in order to retain him in the service, but it is my hope that he will go on to command an RPA squadron someday, and perhaps continue to challenges even greater than that.

Justin’s story reminds me of that of Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the speed of sound, who began his Air Force career as an enlisted aircraft maintainer. He went on to commission and become a test pilot, and ultimately retired as a one-star general — he was both a flyer and a leader, and he became a legend for both reasons together. My RPA community needs flyers, to help solve its manning crisis, and leaders, to forge a future for the community. Justin’s experience as an enlisted sensor operator prepared him well both to fly and to lead as an officer, and I have a half-dozen more junior NCO instructor sensor operators, complete with their degrees, who are waiting to do the same as we speak. Rather than enlisted pilots, an OTS fast track is the obvious and compelling choice: Our airmen deserve gold bars on their road to silver wings.

Why Not Enlisted Pilots?

Other services have long held prior-enlisted “mustangs” in high regard, and since about one-quarter of my squadron’s officer corps is prior-enlisted, I understand why. Many of my best leaders once wore stripes, and I must insist at the top of my lungs that the service grant a commission to these highly qualified men on the road to wings. We need them back not only as flyers, but also as leaders.

For all the talk about enlisted pilots, I believe this is merely a caricature of the Yeager story. It extracts cheap labor to meet a manning crunch but denies opportunity down the line for our highly qualified airmen. World War II enlisted pilots were eventually forced to commission or resign after the wartime manning crunch was over. Similarly, when air battle managers were forced to accept enlisted weapons directors in their ranks due to a manning crisis, they forced them out as soon as the manning crisis abated. There is no reason to expect that those who rise to the call in RPAs wouldn’t receive the same mistreatment when the call is no longer as strong, a fate foreshadowed by career troubles of the RPA-only “beta test” pilots. The Air Force doesn’t have a great track record in terms of follow-through with RPA manning experiments. So in all likelihood, when there are enough officer RPA pilots available to fill the bill, enlisted RPA pilots will face the same fate for the same reasons.

Even in the short-term, this is a raw deal — we must ask how the Air Force will plan to hold a staff sergeant to the same standards, and the same personal and professional liability, as a captain who gets twice the pay and took a different oath. In total, an enlisted pilot proposal is a complete disrespect to our enlisted corps. It treats these highly qualified men and women as throwaway labor, and presents our service as a corporation where the bottom line trumps equity and opportunity. Our enlisted airmen are no fools: They realize that, at the end of the day, the enlisted pilot program offers them more work and more liability for the same pay.

Hence, in a straw poll of sensor operators in my organization, the enlisted pilot option has very few potential takers. The Air Force will likely be disappointed at the turnout if they continue on this road, as the people it is designed to help see the fatal flaws in the program from the outset, and they’re either holding out for better options, or planning on taking the training and then departing the service for industry as soon as possible. But in the same straw poll, if offered an OTS option, these same sensors expressed great interest.

Why Officer Pilots?

There were some good reasons that the Air Force tied the rank of officer to the position of pilot. For one, the nature of tactical flying demands a certain degree of independent decision-making, and hence tactical aviation inherently involves elements of command. The aircraft commander is ultimately responsible for anything that happens on the aircraft or with its crew, so we would be doing these airmen a disservice if we didn’t give them broad authority to match that broad responsibility. A commission, by definition, grants these broad authorities. If we are going to hold someone legally responsible for kinetic engagements in a combat zone, then we must grant them command authorities over their crew, aircraft, and mission exactly as we do for manned aircraft.

Counterintuitively, an RPA crew’s accessibility makes the need for command authority more critical, not despite the connectivity of the aircraft, but precisely because of it. Everyone and their brother wants to tell you what to do and how to fly, so the pilot often needs to use rank to protect the initiative of their crew in order to accomplish the mission. The American military has long held to the concept of “mission command” — tell your people what good looks like, and rely on them to use their judgment to get there. When it comes to vague and ambiguous situations, such as hypothetically being intercepted by heavily armed fighters from an ostensibly neutral country, we find the value of mission command. We cannot make rules for every situation, and in a complex situation such as that, an ill-considered move could wreak havoc on the strategic game board. So we rely on our aircraft commanders to use their judgment to interpret our guidance in unexpected situations, and we would do them a great disservice if we gave them the weight of responsibility without the power and authority to bear it.

Altogether, as long as RPAs serve as lone hunters serving on the pointy end of national policy, it is wise to invest in pilots who are also aircraft commanders. Command allows a pilot to lead a crew, and leading the layered crew of an RPA is as much of a challenge as flying the craft itself. Commanders, furthermore, have lethal authorities appropriate for the level of lethal responsibilities our MQ-1/9 crews assume on a daily basis. Officers command, and Air Force pilots are aircraft commanders; our qualified sensors awaiting OTS are ready for that challenge.

Why, and How, Would This Work for RPA?

By granting RPA wing commanders a dispensation of OTS slots, we place the commissioning decision under proper oversight without subjecting it to the sloth of bureaucracy. We would set aside a percentage of our RPA pilot training pipeline for this OTS fast track, based on pilot manning needs and sensor manning availability. This would provide an incentive for first-tour retention in the sensor corps, ideally resulting in about one-third of RPA sensor operators commissioning as pilots, one-third remaining as sensors, and one-third departing the service.  For the first year or two, the program would target sensors of all NCO ranks, but in steady-state, archetypal candidates would be new staff sergeant instructor sensor operators. This should be sustainable in the long run, and the prospect of a commissioning fast track would encourage sensor recruiting.

By retaining the requirement for a bachelor’s degree, we ensure that we are drawing from experienced sensors that have all the qualifications for a full career as an officer. The degree requirement also serves as a time-forcing function, placing candidates around the grade of staff sergeant and the qualification of instructor before they are eligible to apply. As a non-commissioned officer and an instructor, candidates would be in a strong position to demonstrate battlefield leadership. This ensures that we are selecting good future leaders for the community.

Since this forcing function places applicants around the five-year point in their careers at a minimum, a six-year service commitment would take members through the 10-year decision point, making them more likely to commit for a career. Therefore, in the long run, this program helps us hold on to experience and provides some guaranteed retention. The higher short-term cost of paying commissioned officers pays returns in both quantity and quality of community aviators in the long run.

Combat-Forged Leaders

RPA enlisted leaders, forged in years of combat, are ideally positioned to forge the future of our community as commissioned leaders. We only need to provide them the avenue to do so. That avenue already exists, and is proven every day by Justin and so many others. We do not need something new, we just need more of what works, both for airmen and for the mission.

On one hand, we could scramble to build a new enlisted pilot program and contend with daunting practical problems instantly apparent from the outset, in the perennial hope of saving a buck or in a misguided attempt to provide opportunities to our troops. But no program that offers less pay for more work can claim a mantle of opportunity, and no program that does so can hold any reasonable expectation of retention. Therefore, beyond simply breaking faith in the name of expediency, the idea will prove penny-wise and pound-foolish. We would be doing little more than subsidizing the training bill of RPA contractors, who eagerly snap up our RPA experience as soon as pilots can separate from the service. This initiative would require a great deal of staff work to generate and implement a bad deal for our troops and the mission.

On the other hand, OTS is built upon precedents as old and enduring as the service, with a track record of demonstrated success in RPA. It provides us the strong leaders and aircraft commanders that the mission demands; and it gives them the right authorities to make the hard calls expected of an Air Force pilot. It is also a much better deal for those airmen, who would receive the same benefits as a peer aviator from ROTC or the Air Force Academy. This road may cost a bit more in the short-term, but it retains airmen in the long-term. And in the long run, these aviators will become the senior leaders our community needs. So in this, Justin and all those who share his journey represent the best traditions of both the enlisted and the officer corps, and both camps can rightly be proud of them. We will be selling them (and ourselves) short if we only give them the right to half of Yeager’s path from stripes to stars.


Dave Blair is an MQ-1B Evaluator Pilot in the 3d Special Operations Squadron, Cannon AFB, New Mexico. He has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and emerging fronts in the RPA and in the AC-130U Gunship. He is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Undergraduate Pilot Training, holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a Doctorate in International Relations from Georgetown University.


Photo credit: Senior Airman BreeAnn Sachs, U.S. Air Force