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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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Bob and his crew were never told exactly why they were there – invisible players in a faraway mission. But they kept close watch, moving their joysticks to ensure no insurgents amassed to attack the men on the ground or place an improvised explosive device on a nearby road – meaning they did just what they were needed to do.

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Sometimes the men are asked to track a target for a few hours, sometimes for days or even weeks, allowing each crew rotation an intimate knowledge of the patterns of insurgent behavior.

How drones help save troops – and civilians

AT ANY ONE TIME, the Air Force has 35 Predators or Reapers in the skies over Iraq or Afghanistan. They are flown from here as well as from reserve bases in California, Arizona, North Dakota, and, soon, New York. By 2010, the Air Force has pledged to have 50 such planes flying, and most experts agree the number will soon expand beyond that.

"This has a lot more direct impact with helping people on the ground, so I wanted to be a part of that," says Lyle, who also requested that his last name not be used.

The information gleaned from the ground is often used only to safeguard troops. But it can also be used to conduct the airstrikes that have become so controversial – particularly in Pakistan, where many citizens see the attacks as a violation of national sovereignty. Civilian deaths and collateral damage there have undermined the war effort by breeding anti-US sentiment, some experts say.

Military officials here say only about 3 percent of their missions ever become "kinetic," requiring the use of a munition.

Col. Pete "Gunz" Gersten, the new commander of the 432nd Wing here at Creech Air Force Base, claims the hours of persistent monitoring help to prevent accidents that cause civilian deaths. Colonel Gersten, an F-16 pilot with more than 2,800 hours of flying under his belt, is a passionate convert to the new mission. He cringes when anyone on his staff uses the word "drone," saying that the word implies a mindless flying machine with no human element. On the contrary, he says the unmanned aerial systems require hundreds of people working together.

He signed up for this job to be part of the Air Force's future, he says, and he's bullish on what lies ahead as he works to educate a new generation of officers about what they do here.

To Gersten, it's not a question of fighter jets over remote-controlled airplanes – the future will require both. But changing the perceptions within the service to better accept this increasingly prominent role will take time, he says.

"We take people out of their normal routines and their expectations – pilots that want to be flying F-16s and F-15s. But from a morale perspective here, once you're here and you see what we do, you should see their eyes light up," he says. "When people get here, there is no leper colony."