As many as 700 Air Force personnel have expressed some interest in the test program, which will create a new brand of pilot for the drones, which are flown by remote control from a base in Nevada. That new drone operator will learn the basics of flying a small manned plane, but will not go through the longer, more rigorous training that their fighter jet brethren receive.
A senior Air Force officer told The Associated Press that by the end of September 2011, the goal is to have 50 unmanned combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day, largely over Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently there are 30.
To generate the pilots for the increased flights, the Air Force hopes to create separate pilot pipelines for its manned and unmanned aircraft, said Col. Curt Sheldon, assistant to the director of air operations for unmanned aircraft issues.
"I don't know that you could ever get (a drone) to everybody who wants one," Sheldon said. "I believe it is virtually insatiable. We are pedaling fast, we are working hard to meet that need."
Besides the new test program, Sheldon said the Air Force is planning to shift about 100 manned-aircraft pilots directly from training into jobs flying the drones. The unmanned aircraft are mostly Predators - hunter-killer planes that fly in the war zone but are operated by pilots sitting at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
Until now, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pilots have had to complete at least one tour of flight duty before moving to the drone jobs.
The urgent push for more drone pilots has been spurred by blunt demands from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He has criticized the Air Force's failure to move more quickly to meet war commanders' needs. And he set up a task force in April to find more innovative ways to get the aircraft to the battlefield more quickly.
Predators are playing a crucial role on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing real-time surveillance video to troops on the ground, targeting and firing Hellfire anti-tank missiles at militants, and homing in on enemy efforts to plant roadside bombs.
Earlier this year, for example, a Predator -probably one operated by the CIA - fired on a suspected terrorist safehouse in Pakistan's north Waziristan region, killing Abu Laith al-Libi, a key al Qaeda leader.
To date, the Air Force has been using experienced fighter pilots to operate the drones. But as the demand has skyrocketed, the service has struggled to find enough pilots to fill both the manned and unmanned jobs.
"The pipeline that produces manned operators is full," said Sheldon. "We're pushing them through there as fast as we can."
The two new programs are just beginning.
Two pilots have just been selected to go directly from training to the unmanned program. Once there they will get an additional four to six weeks of schooling on how to operate the drone, how the weapons systems work, and how to coordinate with troops on the ground.
Eventually that will expand, sending as many as 100 a year through the drone program for the next three years.
Meanwhile, the test program for non-pilots is aimed at Air Force captains who have four to six years of experience, but no flight training. Their schooling would take up to nine months, and they would not have to meet all of the more stringent standards that jet fighter pilots must.
Unmanned pilots, for example, will not have to meet certain height or vision requirements, and also would not be eliminated due to physical conditions that might prevent them from flying at high altitudes.
In pressing the Air Force to be more aggressive getting drones to the war, Gates hinted at such a plan, calling for "bold" thinking.
"All this may require rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not," Gates said in April.
Under the fledgling program, the drone pilots would go to Pueblo, Colo., for about six weeks of flight training. Sheldon said they would learn to fly a small Mitsubishi single-engine propeller plane, probably do a solo flight and get a handle on basic aircraft controls.
They would also train on flight simulators, and then go through the unmanned aircraft training.
Officials quickly reject temptations to compare the drone pilots to video gamers who have a far easier job at their computer screens than pilots sitting in cockpits.
An F-16 fighter jet, said Sheldon is easy enough to fly from one spot to another. The harder part, he said, is deploying the weapons.
The same is true for the drones.
"It's not particularly difficult to fly a (drone) from point A to point B," said Sheldon. "It is challenging to fly it in a combat environment, coordinating with a guy on the ground who wants you to hit a target over here that's got (friendly) folks only 50 meters from it."
Air Force captains have until Nov. 3 to apply for the new program. They will be screened and tested, and the first 10 will begin classes Jan. 5. A second class of 10 will begin in April.
The test program will also get reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration in the coming months. Officials could not provide any cost estimates for the new training programs.