Pilot's Union Strangely Silent

Actually, there is no pilots union in the military, perhaps fortunately, because they likely would have opposed the creation of un-manned drone aircraft such as the Predator, which has been wildly successful in Middle East operations.  Current aircraft have both reconnaissance and air-to-ground attack capabilities.  These aircraft are piloted from the ground by ex-fighter pilots, but the next generation will be able to take off and land themselves, obviating the need for even a ground pilot.  Wired has a longer article on these cool drones.  Beyond the obvious reduction in risk to humans, the drones also have the advantage of being substantially less expensive than human piloted fighter craft -- as little as $15 million apiece, even for the next generation tricked up models.

  • Less expensive and also potentially more capable. Modern airframe design is quite capable of supporting maneuvers that would incapacitate a human pilot. And every ounce of weight saved by removing the pilot and all the systems devoted to keeping him alive and in control of the aircraft can be either devoted to the vehicle's primary mission (more cameras or bombs) or simply conserved to increase fuel efficiency (longer range). It's a major step forward on every imaginable front that the military might care about.

    Even without a union, though, pilot culture is going to be dominant in the ranks of Air Force officers. It's a testament to how advantageous these drones are that they're actually being seriously developed, and an even stronger testament that the current generation is actually being deployed.

  • As a former Air Force navigator, with an undergrad degree in computer science, I foresaw the demise of navigators long before my peers could even accept the concept of a reliable computer nav system like GPS. Now as a forward thinking aviation buff with a computer background I can certainly foresee the time when pilots will be replaced by autonomous drones, particularly for the mundane and dangerous jobs where "pilot skill" and "finely tuned reflexes" are substantially underutilized. There is simply no need for a "man in the loop" in these situations, and as Matt points out there will be significant cost and materiel savings when the pilot is removed.

    Moving beyond that will be relatively easy, although where human safety is concerned the pilot will likely have a long life. But if anyone really knew how automated modern airliners are today, they'd understand that pilots are nearly as anachronistic as a full suit of knights armor on the modern battlefield. The joke is that there's a dog and a pilot in every cockpit today - the pilot watches the controls, and the dog is there to watch the pilot and bite him if he touches anything!

    The Air Force is slowly coming to the realization that, although the Air Force mission is "To Fly and Fight", pilots won't be doing the flying and fighting much longer. Soon it will be my virtual next of kin, the computer kids playing online games today, who inherit the skies from air conditioned vans far behind the FEBA (Foward Edge of the Battle Area). Today's pilots will go to their graves in total denial (as is their trait), but it will happen. Just wait and see! Read the November issue of Popular Science for the brief article on the Coyote UAV, flown by mission controllers, for the latest blow to the collective pilot ego!