WASHINGTON - The
Pentagon is preparing to graduate its first drone pilots
from the elite U.S. Air Force Weapons School, a version of
the Navy's Top Gun program, in a bid to elevate the skills
and status of the officers who fly the unmanned Predators,
one of the military's fastest-growing aircraft programs.
The elite flight schools of the Air Force and Navy are
most closely associated with smart, tough fighter jocks.
But over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
the MQ-1 Predator and more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper craft
have become, to many in the Pentagon, the most important
aircraft the U.S. has deployed.
In 2006 the Air Force was able to fly only 12 drones at a
time. Today the Air Force flies 34 constant combat air
patrols. As the program has expanded, the job of keeping
the best pilots flying unmanned aircraft has proved to be
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Until recently, pilots would work on the Predators and
Reapers, then return to their assigned aircraft. But now
the Air Force would like officers to make a career out of
flying unmanned craft and become top experts at operating
"It is safe to say most pilots will always miss getting
back in the air," said Lt. Col. Daniel Turner, who leads
the Predator and Reaper training at the Weapons School.
"But we see where the Air Force is going. We understand we
are adding to the mission in a crucial way."
Giving top drone pilots a shot at the best training the
military offers is one way to ensure that the most
talented officers stay with the drone program and do not
return to manned aircraft.
"I would love and go back and fly," said Maj. Geoff
Fukumoto, an F-15 pilot who is one of the first to go
through the Air Force Weapons School for the Predator and
Reaper. "But I think I have found the place the Air Force
needs me. Right now, I am committed to this job."
The military beefed up its advanced fighter pilot training
after combat losses in the early years of the Vietnam War.
The Naval Fighter Weapons School, founded in 1969, is
popularly known as Top Gun and was the setting for the
1986 movie of that name.
The Air Force's school, located at Nellis Air Force Base
in Nevada, began training only fighter pilots but has
expanded over the years to include many different kinds of
aircraft. Graduates are awarded a special insignia for
their flight suits and are known as "patch-wearers."
The first five students will receive their Weapons School
patches Thursday and graduate Saturday. Then they will
serve as the program's first instructors, training 10 more
pilots a year.
Air Force officers proposed adding the advanced training
for the Predator and Reaper drones three years ago. But
the Pentagon nixed the plan, arguing that they could not
spare the drones or pilots from fight runs in Iraq or
"We have never had an opportunity to do this before
because we have been too busy doing combat," said Col.
Trey Turner, who oversees training for the unmanned
But now, with 127 Predators, 31 Reapers and 400 unmanned
aircraft pilots, the Air Force was given the go-ahead to
create the program. Its backers say the training is
crucial to helping the military develop new ways to use
The Predator and Reaper pilots do their debriefs and
classroom work at Nellis, with Weapons School students
specializing in other aircraft. But they fly the drones
from nearby Creech Air Force Base, the same control
station used to fly the drones in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some of the tactics under development - including how to
use Reapers to take out sophisticated enemy air defenses -
are unlikely to be used in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But many tactics will be quickly used in the field. For
example, the five graduating officers have learned new
ways to hide the sounds of the noisy propellers and keep
their drones from being detected by militants.
Another important contribution is rescuing downed pilots.
For years, on bar napkins and in post-mission briefings,
Air Force officers who fly the drones have talked about
how they could be used in rescues.
But it wasn't until the Weapons School training began this
year that the pilots worked out precise procedures for
using the planes in combat search and rescue missions.
"Everyone knew it made sense to send unmanned aircraft in,
but we didn't know how we were going to make that happen,"
said Turner, the lieutenant colonel.
The training is paying off already.
In recent days, students from the school have been
advising drone crews in Afghanistan on more effective ways
to use their weapons.
"We are already having an impact," said Maj. Joseph Campo,
the Predator and Reaper Weapons School's director of
operations. "Units overseas and guys here are calling us
asking for our expertise."