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New Air Force piloting program tests enlisted force

Portrait of Airman 1st Class Jack Pepper, 316th Training Squadron trainee. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Scott Jackson)

Portrait of Airman 1st Class Jack Pepper, 316th Training Squadron trainee. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Scott Jackson)

George H. Holmes, the Air Force's last enlisted pilot (Courtesy Photo)

George H. Holmes, the Air force's last enlisted pilot (Courtesy Photo).


Airman 1st Class Jack Pepper, 316th Training Squadron student, will make history as one of the first of five enlisted members to participate in a new pilot training program.

Pepper never expected to be selected.

“On a Friday in November, during a safety brief, [leadership] told us that 250 people across the Air Force got letters to participate in a new enlisted piloting course,” said Pepper. “I honestly thought it was just for drone pilots—remote piloted aircraft. Then over the weekend, something leaked to a popular Air Force Facebook page, and it went from there to “Business Insider” and it turned out it was actually flying manned aircraft. Then Monday, I got a letter…I was selected.”

He received the news at the perfect time.

“I received the letter when I was on hold for [survival, evasion, resistance and escape school],” said Pepper. “For me it was pretty much if I didn’t get the letter, everything would’ve gone as normal. I already graduated my class.”

Knowing an opportunity like this would never happen again, he jumped on it.

“This was all volunteer; I can back out any time,” said Pepper. “I just feel like I’d be dumb to say no.”

The five enlisted members selected for the course are joining 15 officer students. The training itself is a new program, a course taking an 18 month pipeline and shortening it down to six months to meet the demands of piloting shortages. Currently, the aircrew is the closest tier Airman has with interacting with aircraft inflight. On Dec. 7, 2017, Air Education Training Command released a statement to Air Force Times claiming the inclusion of enlisted members (specifically without college degrees) is not to make them career aviators, but to see how they learn.

“They had us take a lot of tests, getting flight physicals, taking personality tests,” said Pepper. “A lot of preparation has gone into this to ensure we’re the right pick.”

According to Air Force Magazine, the Air Force brought in enlisted pilots to meet the demand during both World War I and World War II. This marks 61 years since the last “flying sergeant” retired. Now, in 2018, this sets a new era for the Air Force in reducing the time it takes to train a pilot.

Business Insider observed in 2016, the required 20,300 pilots the Air Force is mandated came up short by about 1,500 pilots. The problem isn’t getting pilots to sign-up per se, but there’s too many in the pipeline and not enough room to train them. Hence the emphasis on the six-month pipeline.

"Enlisted volunteers will be pioneers in innovating Air Force aviator recruitment, selection and training processes by demonstrating the potential of non-college graduates to succeed in a rigorous pilot training environment," said Gen. Timothy Leahy, 2nd Air Force commander. “They will provide data to the AETC commander on the potential for enlisted members to train to fly modern combat aircraft.”