Remotely piloted aircraft pilots don’t fly their aircraft from the plane’s cockpit, but from a room that’s thousands of miles from the plane or its area of operations. The U.S. Air Force doesn’t publicize the location or identities of the pilots and says little about their training. As of February 2012, the Air Force no longer draws RPA pilot officers from the ranks of fully trained USAF pilots, but trains them to fly drones exclusively.
RPA pilot officers must first be U.S. Air Force officers. This means they’ve satisfied the physical and educational requirements to serve as an Air Force officer, including the requirement for a 4-year college degree. She must complete 40 hours of USAF training in light aircraft, which is enough to earn a private pilot’s license, but not enough to become a fully qualified Air Force pilot. She also needs to complete an academic and simulator-based instrument-flight-training program that teaches her to fly based on instrument readings alone. Following this, she attends RPA training at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Overall, the training takes about one year to complete.
Applying for the Job
The process for applying for the RPA pilot training program begins with meeting the Air Force’s physical requirements. You must meet the basic requirements for a commission: U.S. citizenship, a clean police record and credit record. You should also meet the USAF age requirements, which may be waived if you have prior service and a squeaky-clean service record. While in Basic Military Training, the Air Force will test your abilities. If you meet the physical requirements for pilot training, career counselors will then talk to you about the option of RPA pilot training.
License and Certification
A RPA officer isn’t required to hold any license or certification prior to applying for the specialty, called “18X” by the Air Force. The only documentation you must have is a commission in the Air Force. Although you may already possess a private pilot license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, you must still attend the Air Force training.
When you enter the Air Force as an officer, you enter at pay grade O-1, a second lieutenant; you may eventually reach General, pay grade O-10, based on performance, team work and leadership. Within the RPA pilot rating, there are also different ratings -- RPA pilot, Senior RPA pilot and Command RPA pilot. RPA pilots must graduate from the Air Force RPA program and have 400 hours of experience with the RPA, including instrument flight time. Senior RPA pilots must have 2,000 hours of RPA experience, or 1,300 hours of flight time, including time in other than RPAs and 7 years’ experience as an RPA pilot. Command RPA pilots must have 15 years' service as an RPA pilot and 3,000 hours RPA flight time.
Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.