The Air Force's new poster boys: drone jocks
The service is putting more pilots behind a joystick to fly the unmanned planes crucial to today's wars.
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This year marks firsts on several fronts:Skip to next paragraph
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•The Air Force will train more officers on remote-controlled aircraft than combat fighters for the first time ever.
•Last month, the service's prestigious weapons school graduated its first group of students who know more about munitions for unmanned aerial vehicles than they do weapons for fighter jets.
•And last month, the first group of officers with no formal Air Force pilot training graduated from an Air Force school.
This comes amid concerns that the Air Force is being too quick to respond to current needs and taking its eye off the threats of the future – conventional threats requiring the kinds of big, fast planes that defined the Air Force's potent past.
Yet ground forces engaged today demand the kind of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability – known as ISR – that only the Air Force can provide, says Gen. Norton "Norty" Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff hired last year to reshape the service and its culture.
"The bottom line," says General Schwartz, is that the current wars need a new Air Force. "Ideally, in the counterinsurgency context ... what you don't want to have happen is [to have] an American marine, an American sailor, or an American soldier turn a corner and be surprised by what he confronts or what she confronts," he told reporters this spring. "We as an Air Force can do something about that."
Schwartz has recognized that the ISR mission is seen by some in the Air Force as a "leper colony," because it remains so unpopular in some quarters. He has tried to sell his service on the need for change.
Watching Kandahar through a monitor
CAPTAIN BOB AND HIS COLLEAGUE, Master Sergeant Lyle, a sensor operator, work in eight-hour shifts inside what some crew members call "the box." A third crew member, who coordinates the mission, sits in a building nearby. Ensconced before a bank of eight monitors, two keyboards, a rudder control, and a joystick, the two men fly their unmanned plane remotely and monitor whatever target they are assigned.
One monitor contains maps, another flight data, and another instrumentation on the plane. Yet another contains half a dozen "chat boxes," allowing the pilots to text other operators around the world using clipped language like "R U ready?"
Oftentimes, the hours of monitoring – "persistent stare" in the parlance of ISR – is uneventful.
One recent day they were told to watch a group of American "friendlies" on a patrol in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. So they watched a small unit huddle near a field and a group of small buildings for several hours. Nothing whatsoever happened, until an object later identified to be a dog or another animal bolted through a pasture.