Quora Question: What Do Conventional Military Pilots Think of Drone Pilots?

Visitors look at a Artemis military drone on display during the 51st Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris June 17, 2015. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

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Answer from Lynn Taylor, A-10 pilot, joint firepower course instructor, air liaison officer.

If you had a choice between a corner office with a killer view and sitting at a desk in the middle of a cubicle farm, which would you choose?

If you had a choice between driving a Lamborghini on an open track and playing Need for Speed on Xbox, which would you choose?

Now, if you went to the exact same college as a buddy of yours, you both worked hard, majored in the same subject, took all the same classes, maybe even dated the same girls (or guys), and you end up with the corner office, killer view, AND the Lamborghini, while your buddy sits in a cube farm and plays Xbox...

What would YOU think?

Your buddy...

(Photo Courtesy of US Air Force)


(Photo Courtesy of US Air Force)

Framing the Discussion
Realize that this is simply my personal opinion, which is obviously the only kind of opinion I can realistically give. It is also colored by a military combat pilot perspective re: combat drones. I'm not talking about the hobbyist who slaps a GoPro on a quadcopter to get a cool shot of her kids on the Slip-n-Slide. (If that's what we're talking about, we might as well ask Mario Andretti what he thinks about my kid's remote controlled race car.)

And... my experience is getting more aged every day. So, when I was in and dealing with RPA folks, they all went through pilot training before RPA was even a word. They all expected to have air under their seat. I'm not talking about folks who go through a "drone only" training. Different situation, and different animal. Maybe more on that farther down.

What goes through my mind...
Okay, enough waffling, and on to the crux of the question. Let's delve a little deeper, and I'll be a little more explicit and less nuanced.

First, a few assumptions:
1. The RPA pilot went through the same pilot training as a conventional pilot.
2. The RPA pilot could have gone on to fly a conventional aircraft, had there not been a need to fill an RPA slot.
3. The RPA pilot didn't enter pilot training with the intent to fly a drone.

Of course there are exceptions to these assumptions. However, I'm not going for a Ph.D. in pilot comparisons, so we're not going to delve into those here.

So... to be clear, as I tried to express in my response, my general thought about pilots who
(1) go through pilot training,
(2) planning to fly something with air under their seat, and
(3) getting assigned to fly a drone instead is...
"Dude, that sucks."

This is as opposed to: "Dude, you suck."

When I read the question, that is what I gathered as the underlying question: Do conventional pilots see RPA pilots as fortunate or unfortunate, qualified or unqualified, capable or incapable?

So, I see them as having gone through the exact same training, done the exact same things, and crossed the exact same finish line, only to get assigned to something that I, personally, wouldn't find as exciting.

However, it is a vital need. They fill a critically necessary mission. Someone has to do it. And, in a case where the option is drone or nothing, I'd pick drones all day. But, again, I see that as an exception, not the general rule.

Still, if the only reason the drone pilot wasn't flying a conventional aircraft was because of a limitation beyond their control that kept them from being "pilot qualified," and they still had all of the training to be airborne, it would still generate the "Dude, that sucks" response.

Believe me, I have personal experience with that one. I was medically DQ'd for aural migraines. (I'd get huge blind spots and fuzzy vision. Kinda hard to fly in that condition.) My response to myself was "Dude, that sucks." So, I spent the rest of my time flying a desk (not even an RPA), and riding around in a Humvee as an ALO.

Still, it was fun while it lasted.
Events occur.
Life goes on.

Tactics, Techniques and Procedures
Piloting a drone is not the same as piloting an aircraft. It just isn't.

When I was teaching at the Joint Firepower Course at Nellis AFB, NV, I was part of a team that went out to Indian Springs (now Creech Air Force Base) to evaluate and give feedback on their close air support training curriculum. Their curriculum was great. Their capability wasn't.

This is in no way a reflection on the quality of the pilots. They are professionals and take their job very seriously. They have my utmost respect for that. No, the problem was the limit of the drone itself.

The biggest limitation was in situational awareness. In a fighter with a bubble canopy (remember that corner office with the killer view?), you can simply look outside and see what's going on. Your field of view is pretty much limited only by how far you can twist in your seat. With a drone, it's like looking at the world through a soda straw.

This is when someone usually chimes in with, "But what about improving the sensors?" or, "What about full motion wrap-around visual pods?"

Yup. Great idea. Maybe someday. Let's talk about those when we have 'em, k? We're not there yet.

Plus, those suckers have some other limitations, payload and durability among them. Rather than run down that whole list, I'll simply link to this: Lynn Taylor's answer to Are Close Air Support (CAS) aircrafts like A-10 and Su-25 obsolete?

Okay, back to the pilots...

If we're talking about someone who has sat in the driver's seat of a tin can hurtling through the air, where making the wrong error at the wrong time can kill you...then we're talking about a PILOT.

If we're talking about someone who sits at zero feet and zero knots moving a joystick to change the picture on the TV...then we're talking about a "pilot."

As Tim Hibbetts put it, the former has "skin in the game." And it can be a very deadly game.

Again... I feel I must make a clear distinction here...
**People who professionally pilot RPAs with a sense of duty and responsibility have my utmost respect.** Similarly, folks who unprofessionally pilot manned aircraft have my utmost derision...usually posthumously.

I'm specifically pointing out that the term "pilot" does not mean the same thing in all cases, just because it is spelled the same, pronounced the same, and is used in the sense that there is a control mechanism that directs something that flies.

Case in point, from Merriam-Webster Online:
pilot | a person who flies an airplane, helicopter, etc.
also: | a person who steers or guides a ship into and out of a port or in dangerous waters
and: | a single television show that is made as a test to see if a television series based on the show would be popular and successful

So... "flying a drone" is not the same as "flying an aircraft" is not the same as "steering a ship."

They are all useful, and they are all different.

There's no emotional attachment to the fact.

It simply... is.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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