While some might still think of joystick-wielding aviators as the stuff of science fiction, that's no longer the case. A top general told reporters last week that there are now more jobs for drone pilots in the US Air Force than there are for pilots of traditional manned aircraft. Specifically, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones are set to have more than 1,000 pilot operators in the 2017 fiscal year -- that's more than the 889 pilots who fly the troop-transporting C-17, or the 803 flying F-16 fighter jets, according to Military.com.
This isn't the first initiative intended to beef up jobs for qualified drone pilots, either. Last year, the Air Force started paying bonuses to keep pilots in the job, offering $10,000 more per year if they renewed their active duty status for five years. The military has also been increasing its use of drones like the MQ-9 Reaper for reconnaissance and missile strikes.
More jobs means more reliance on these unmanned aircraft, with the Air Force moving to an all-Reaper drone fleet in the next year or two. The military branch intends to retire the older MQ-1 Predator next year, along with plans for eight potential bases to host new drone units in the near future.
"I never thought I'd say that when I joined the Air Force," Lt. General Darryl Roberson said at the roundtable, referring to the high number of drone piloting jobs. "So we're really in a much better footing with RPA pilot production in addition to just getting the numbers up."