Drone Pilots or Drone Operators?

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DRONESYou might note that I have written about UAVs on several occasions, usually in vain. Let me say for the record that UAVs (or Remotely Piloted Aircraft – RPAs) are great use of technology, particularly in the military. 



Ok, I was listening to an interview recently and they were talking about UAVs/RPAs and some of the challenges associated with staffing, etc. 


I noticed they said “drone pilot” enough in the discussion that it actually started to grate on me. It wasn’t the hosts that were bothering me, they are great guys, but rather the innocent use of the word “pilot” as it relates to drone operations.


This brings up a fundamental question. Are RPA operators, pilots? Before you start sending me hate-mail, follow my logic.


The phrase “drone pilot” is common enough that most aviators use it without second thought. Even this critical author didn’t seem to be phased by its use until recently. But should we be ok with this misuse of the term? Is it a misuse of the term?


I think part of this comes from the military’s need to keep the drone operator’s egos up (yes I know many of which are current/former pilots). So the military propagates the title of “pilot” through the various channels to help keep them in the fraternity. Who can blame them? All reports are that attracting and keeping “operators” is proving challenging.


In a particularly horrendous blunder, the military started awarding combat medals to these folks, something the currently decorated veterans found understandably offensive. 


I have nothing against the men and women who do this job, again many of which are actually fully trained pilots. I’m also not saying operating a drone isn’t a tough job. I’m sure it requires a good degree of intellect, talent, and discipline. I also recognize that operating a multi-million dollar, armed piece of equipment in anger has to be stressful, and they are certainly doing a worthwhile mission that is keeping real people out of harm’s way. For all this I salute them, but it just feels wrong to call them “pilots.”


Lets face it, if we were to adopt the RPAs guys, we better hand out pilot badges to flight simulator folks and the remote-controlled airplane crowd; wouldn’t they be considered pilots too using this standard?


In doing some research, I predictably found that the term originated from the nautical world. It came from ancient Greece to describe the rudder of a boat, which makes sense. 


Maybe I have an inflated view of what it is be a pilot? I have been known to be a little “precious” about details like this. After all I worked my ass off getting my ratings and I don’t take it lightly. 


In today’s world, as my fellow bloggers have pointed out, many pilots have strayed further and further from their roots as pilots and are closer to “systems operators” in many regards. Accidents like ColganAir 3407, AF447 and Asiana 214 were all stick-n-rudder related. So maybe I shouldn’t be so magnanimous with the term “pilot,” since the lines between a drone operator sitting on a military base commanding a drone and an A380 Captain sitting on the flight deck commanding a jumbo jet are starting to blur. 


Why do I even care? Because I’m unashamedly romantic about flying and drones are about as unromantic as you can get. In fact, they’re creepy.


So back to my original question, should we call drone operators, pilots? Let’s hear your thoughts. Don’t hold back, but please don’t use too much profanity – this is a family blog. 


by Brent Owens 

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