The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

July 25, 2013

Air Force aims to land more top guns amid pilot shortage

(Continued)

It requires commercial co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of flying experience, the same as captains. Currently, first officers are required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires just 250 hours of flight time.

Dennis Prokopowicz, an assistant system chief pilot with Jet Blue Airways, said it will be difficult for civilian pilots to achieve that many hours, but much easier for military pilots.

“Getting that kind of experience for a civilian pilot is hard to come by,” he said. “Renting a Cessna can cost around $100 per hour. You don’t have to pay for that in the Air Force.”

Prokopowicz spent 20 years flying fighter jets and attack planes in the Air Force across the globe, including Germany, Italy and South Korea, before he decided to leave.

But many decide to leave well before 20 years. The Air Force said part of the problem is finding and training new pilots. The shortage of veteran pilots has resulted in a lack of trainers.

Another logistics problem has emerged with the proliferation of drones, and the need for drone pilots. Drones went from being a handful of aircraft on Sept. 11 to the “fastest growing part of the force,” said Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book about robotic warfare.

The surge in drones was driven by demands for more armed systems in Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to the Air Force scrambling to find pilots for them in the mid-2000s, he said.

As a result, pilots were plucked from fighter jet assignments and placed in control of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones. In all, 153 fighter pilots were permanently reassigned to drones.

Recognizing the mounting shortage, the Air Force has stopped the practice of using fighter pilots for drones, called RPAs, or remotely piloted aircraft.

“We have in the past used fighter pilots in RPA assignments but have largely shifted away from that process and are now training pilots specific to the RPA mission,” said Konopatzke, the Air Force lieutenant colonel. “This goes back to the fact that we recognize the shortage in fighter pilots.”

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