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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.

In one scenario, Petrizzo followed a squad of soldiers through a village. Suddenly, the troops were hit with a blast of sniper fire and sprinted for cover. Although Petrizzo quickly spotted the insurgent, it took him almost five minutes to maneuver his plane into a spot where he could get off a shot that wouldn't also spray the soldiers or nearby civilians with shrapnel.

Those few minutes amounted to an eternity to soldiers under fire. Bright counseled Petrizzo to think more about how he positioned his plane. "Flying a Predator is like a chess game," he said. "Because you have a God's-eye perspective, you need to think a few moves ahead."

Four hours and several ambushes later, Petrizzo and Bright sat across from each other in a conference room for a mission debriefing. Bright was professional. But it was clear that he had doubts that any officer could be ready to fly combat missions after just nine months of training. "I have to spend a lot of time with them on the very basics," Bright said of Petrizzo and his fellow officers in the program. "They are still learning how to maneuver a plane."

The graduation ceremony for Petrizzo and his classmates raised a new set of questions for the Air Force: Should the new graduates wear the same wings as traditional pilots? Did they qualify for extra flight pay? Should they even be called pilots?

Schwartz decided the graduates were pilots. Even though they didn't leave the ground, they would receive flight pay. On the day of the ceremony, the general flew in from the Pentagon to pin a specially designed set of wings on each of the trainee's uniforms. The traditional shield at the center of their wings was festooned with lightning bolts to signify the satellite signal that connects the ground-based pilots to their planes.

"You are part of the major new Air Force development of the decade," Schwartz told the graduates.

A few days later, Petrizzo and his classmates were flying missions over Afghanistan.

Top-down changes

Lasting cultural change won't take place in the Air Force until officers who serve in these new fields rise to the top ranks, which are still dominated by fighter pilots.

Because of the huge demand for drones, the pilots who fly Predators and Reapers aren't being allowed to leave bases such as Creech for other assignments that would give them the experience they need to ascend to higher ranks. Today, there are about a dozen officers with experience flying Predators and Reapers on the Air Force staff in the Pentagon, compared with more than 100 fighter pilots.

"My guys understand this mission is important," one squadron commander told Schwartz on a visit to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in late January. "But for them this tour is never-ending."

Some senior Predator and Reaper commanders are leaving the military because they probably won't make general. In a few weeks, Col. Eric Mathewson, who has more experience with unmanned aircraft than just about any other officer in the Air Force, will retire after 26 years.

The former F-15 pilot started working with the Predators in 2000 after he hurt his back and was unable to fly. As a squadron commander during a bloody 15-hour battle in eastern Afghanistan in 2002, Mathewson saw his Predators outperform the Air Force's most advanced fighter jets.

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