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Combat Generation: Drone operators climb on winds of change in the Air Force

The past decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has helped redefine the identity of the U.S. Air Force. With more patrolling and zero opposition in air, Predator and Reaper unmanned planes have seen a six-fold increase since 2004.

A quiet and introspective leader, Schwartz has turned his attention to dismantling the Air Force's rigid class system. At the top of the traditional hierarchy are fighter pilots. Beneath them are bomber, tanker and cargo pilots. At the bottom are the officers who keep aircraft flying and satellites orbiting in space.

Schwartz has also pushed to broaden the Air Force's definition of its core missions beyond strategic bombing and control of the skies. New on his list: providing surveillance imagery to ground troops waging counterinsurgencies. Today, the Air Force is flying 40 round-the-clock patrols each day with its Predator and Reaper unmanned planes, an eightfold increase over 2004.

"This is our year to look up and out . . . to ask big questions," Schwartz said in an interview. "Who are we? What are we doing for the nation's defense? . . . Where is this grand institution headed?"

One answer to those questions is taking shape at Creech Air Force Base, an hour's drive from Las Vegas, where the Air Force launched a trial program to train a first-ever group of officers with no aviation background or training to fly the Predator. Before the trial program, virtually all of the Air Force's Predator and Reaper pilots began their careers flying fighter jets, bombers or cargo aircraft and were temporarily assigned to three-year tours as drone pilots.

By 2007, the Air Force started to realize that it didn't have enough traditional pilots to meet the growing demand from field commanders for Predators and Reapers. When Gates pressed for an expedited program to train officers without an aviation background to fly drones, the Air Force initially resisted. Only a fully trained pilot could be trusted to maneuver an unmanned aircraft and drop bombs, some officials maintained.

At the rate the Air Force was moving, it would have needed a decade to meet battlefield demand. Schwartz changed the policy.

"We had a math problem that quickly led to a philosophical discussion about whether we could create a new type of pilot," said Maj. Gen. Marke F. Gibson, the director of Air Force operations and training. With Schwartz's backing, Gibson crafted a nine-month training program for officers from non-flying backgrounds, including deskbound airmen, military police officers and "missiliers."

The crash program has been controversial, particularly among traditional pilots, who typically undergo two years of training. "We are creating the equivalent of a puppy mill," complained one fighter pilot.

One of eight initial trainees was Capt. Steve Petrizzo, who joined the Air Force in 2003 hoping to fly F-16s. He was too nearsighted to fly planes, so the Air Force assigned him to a nuclear-missile base where he manned a concrete capsule 50 feet below ground, waiting for the order to launch.

Petrizzo leapt at the chance to fly the Predator. "I wanted to be in the fight," he said.

His first six months of training beginning in early 2009 focused on the basics of flying. The last few months of instruction were spent in a ground control station maneuvering a simulated Predator through video-game reproductions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One day last summer, inside the cramped and aggressively air-conditioned ground control station, the tension between the old and new Air Force was obvious. Maj. Andy Bright, an F-15 pilot turned Predator instructor, was coaching Petrizzo through the simulations.

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