"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Wrongs They Have Lived"

A buddy of mine (F-15E pilot) forwarded me a master’s thesis he thought I’d be interested in for my study. I greatly appreciate his help and the assistance of others who have aided my research, challenged my thoughts, and even corrected my shoddy writing.

In his master’s thesis entitled, “The Effects of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Assignments on Fighter Pilot Morale and Retention” Paul Thornton, an Air Education and Training Command (AETC) F-16 Instructor Pilot, argues that fighter pilots sent to UAS are suffering from severe morale issues and, if the factors underlying the lack of morale aren’t remedied, the service will face a shortage of pilots to fly the UAS.

States Thornton, “I would like to dedicate this paper to the warriors who inspired its writing, Stroke, Mega, Shiv, Adder, and Liquor. They all define what a fighter pilot truly is and the F-16 community is no doubt less lethal without them. I hope this paper will get their message out and that they will be repaid for the wrongs they have lived” (Thornton, 2009, iii).

In my opinion, Thornton raises some valid points especially regarding the issue of UAS basing locations. While overall I don’t think his conclusion (that fighter pilots don’t want to fly UAS and will probably separate) is a particularly useful addition to the research body of knowledge, his thesis has provided some excellent data for the cultural analysis of his community.

Thornton surveyed 254 pilots and Weapon Systems Operators (WSO). Of these, 165 were currently flying fighters and 89 were flying UAS (Thornton, 2009, 26). Of those flying UAS, 39 were former fighter pilots and 48 previously flew tanker/airlift assets (Thornton, 2009, 27).

Thornton explains “…the number of UAS pilots who received the survey for this study was limited due to the request to conduct research being disapproved by the Special Operations Group Commander at Cannon Air Force Base” (Thornton, 2009, 4).

In other words, Thornton’s findings do not represent the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) community. While merely anecdotal, I know members of that community flying UAS at Cannon. In my opinion, their attitudes, levels of commitment, pride, and sense of mission accomplishment significantly diverge from the findings of Thornton’s research. I would be interested to see further research in this area to see if there is a difference between the fighter pilot culture of Thornton’s work and the quiet professionals at Cannon.

Thornton’s research suggests there may be a difference. Analyzing the data he collected, Thornton observes, “job satisfaction and organizational commitment are significantly higher among UAS pilots who were not previous fighter pilots” (Thornton, 2009, 71).

He describes fighter pilots as “achievement striving and action oriented individuals” who are bored by the UAS mission which is too easy and does not challenge them (Thornton, 2009, 4). He states that the odds of becoming a fighter pilot are comparable to becoming a professional athlete and outlines the long hard road.

“The seemingly basic duties and significantly reduced workload of a UAS pilot would undoubtedly be a much different experience from flying fighters. This much more simple job when done by an action seeking fighter pilot, is causing lower job satisfaction and hence lower morale” (Thornton, 2009, 24).

He then provides reasoning for the decrease in morale claiming that fighter pilots are bored with the UAS job, feel their valuable skill set isn’t being properly utilized, and believe they have been unfairly treated by an Air Force leadership which they can no longer trust. Thornton writes:

“People typically feel pride as the result of accomplishing great things. With the UAS pilots' lack of sense of accomplishment follows a lack of pride in their unit. One UAS pilot said, ‘I am personally embarrassed to be in my current squadron.’ This individual's feelings are indicative of the over 60 percent of former fighter pilots now flying UAS who are not proud to tell others they are in their current unit. On the other hand, current fighter pilots often feel a sense of accomplishment and it shows in their pride in their unit” (Thornton, 2009, 55).

Thornton then links this lack of pride, and lack of desire to tell others what they do, with organizational loyalty. Thornton continues:

“Pride and loyalty usually go hand in hand, which was the case in this study. The lack of pride in UAS units by UAS pilots brings a lack of loyalty. One of the reasons for this situation is the feeling by former fighter pilots that they have been treated unfairly” (Thornton, 2009, 55).

Thornton then follows up his discussion of a lack of loyalty with this observation:

“Since military officers are patriotic and practice the core value of service before self, UAS pilots are going to perform the duties assigned to them to the best of their ability. This however, does not mean that they necessarily want to…” (Thornton, 2009, 56)

He also observes, “The FAA does not recognize UAS flight hours and when it comes to applying for a job with an airline, these pilots are at an extreme disadvantage” (Thornton, 2009, 60).

Thornton concludes:

“The research conducted in this study addressing morale and retention issues among fighter pilots who are assigned to fly UAS has brought to light some very important conclusions. First, former fighter pilots are very dissatisfied with their job as UAS pilots due to a multitude of reasons that include lack of challenge, boredom, and a lack of sense of accomplishment. The feeling that these pilots were assigned to UAS unfairly, the constantly changing policies of the USAF, and the lack of guidance about the future are some of the reasons former fighter pilots demonstrate low organizational commitment. These two conclusions lead to the obvious conclusion that morale among this group of pilots is low due to their UAS assignment” (Thornton, 2009, 71).

Thornton then makes several recommendations including:

“Based on the conclusions of this study, the researcher recommends the USAF take immediate action to address the problem of low morale among all UAS pilots in order to avoid a manning crisis in the community in the coming years. The most obvious way to improve morale and retention is to send UAS pilots back to their previous MDS” (Thornton, 2009, 73).

Works Cited:

Thornton, Paul Daniel, The Effects of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Assignments on Fighter Pilot Morale and Retention, Embry-Riddle, March 2009.

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