We Are Not Drones

Pilots, sensor operators put human element in RPA operations

Story by Tech Sgt. Chris Powell
Photos by Airman Andrew Lee

After taxiing in an MQ-9 Reaper, Airman 1st Class Jon Mann walks under a Reaper's wing to place wheel chocks to prevent accidental movement.

After taxiing in an MQ-9 Reaper, Airman 1st Class Jon Mann walks under a Reaper’s wing to place wheel chocks to prevent accidental movement. The crew chiefs are responsible for taxiing incoming aircrafts and performing post-flight checks that include fluid checks, looking over the aircraft for damage and cleaning the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

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When Capt. Blain hears a reporter on TV refer to a remotely piloted aircraft as a “drone,” it makes him cringe, and there’s a good reason why.

While it may seem like semantics, the term implies there’s no human element involved in piloting the aircraft, and it belittles the very real impact RPA pilots, like Blain, and sensor operators are making on today’s battlefield.

“Drones get shot at for target practice. We are not drones,” said Capt. Blain, a 29th Attack Squadron MQ-9 Reaper instructor pilot assigned to Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. “There’s a pilot, sensor operator, tactical intelligence, ground commander – a team of humans trained to make decisions at all times. We are just remotely piloted.”

This team of humans works together to ensure Reaper, MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk operations are carried out in as safe a manner as possible. And just because the pilots are operating RPAs from thousands of miles away doesn’t mean they don’t feel the effects of their actions.

“We understand that one weapon’s impact, one strike, will not win a war, but one weapon’s impact at the wrong time on the wrong target could potentially turn the tide against us. We are very careful and methodical about what we do,” said Capt. Randy, the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron’s MQ-1 Predator assistant flight commander at Holloman AFB. “The commanders put a lot of trust in us as an aircrew to determine whether or not it’s an appropriate time to release the weapon. Even if we have clearance, it comes down to us, as an aircrew, as the final authority to say, ‘Maybe we should withhold fire here.’”

Airman 1st Class Marquise Barfield performs radio checks with an MQ-1 Predator pilot that landed at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Once an RPA lands, the aircraft maintenance crews have a list of tasks they are responsible for, including taxiing the aircraft, post-flight checks and cleaning the aircraft. Barfield is a Predator crew chief assigned to the 849th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Holloman AFB.

Airman 1st Class Marquise Barfield performs radio checks with an MQ-1 Predator pilot that landed at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Once an RPA lands, the aircraft maintenance crews have a list of tasks they are responsible for, including taxiing the aircraft, post-flight checks and cleaning the aircraft. Barfield is a Predator crew chief assigned to the 849th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Holloman AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

The use of RPAs has grown during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is largely because of their ability to “loiter” in the air much longer than a traditional manned aircraft. This allows the team to relay real-time information to ground commanders, giving them an important tactical advantage over their enemies.

“Over that span of 16 to 20 hours, we can be building that whole ground picture and helping the ground commander determine if he has a valid military target under him,” Blain said.

Having an RPA overhead isn’t only to provide situational awareness for commanders, it’s also to keep troops on the ground safe.

“It’s very rewarding when we realize that we have a direct impact on how the guys on the ground are able to sleep at night or go on a patrol safely and know what to expect over that next hill or around the next corner,” Blain said. “That keeps motivation high.”

For some in the career field, the people they’re providing close air support for are friends or family.

“I know a lot of those guys. My best friend growing up is an Army captain, and he’s in Afghanistan now,” said Staff Sgt. Will, a 6th RS sensor operator. “It becomes a lot more personal at that point. That’s my buddy, so if something happened, I would be on edge all day.”

While it takes a team of people to conduct a successful RPA mission, the two people controlling the aircraft inside a ground control station thousands of miles away are the pilot and enlisted sensor operator.

The sensor operators’ primary responsibility is to control the multi-sensor targeting system, lasers and cameras on the Predator and Reaper while also communicating with troops on the ground, commanders and intelligence specialists. But there’s also another very important responsibility that may not be found in their official job description.

“I may have a 19-year-old Airman sitting next to me as my sensor operator. Depending on his experience level, he gets up to 49 percent of the vote,” Blain said. “He’s my co-pilot, my flight engineer. Once the weapon comes off the target, he’s the one who ultimately guides it to its target. That’s a lot of responsibility.”

The relationship between an RPA pilot and sensor operator is incredibly important, especially when you consider a crew could have as little as 16 months of combined Air Force experience conducting combat missions.

“The way I explain it to my students is, ‘if you’re going to sit next to another person for eight hours, you’re not just going to talk about the mission all the time. You’re going to talk about other stuff, and you’re going to get to know the people you work with,’” Will said. “It’s more tight knit than you would have in any other place, since it’s just two people. You definitely build those close relationships.”

For most of the pilots and sensor operators, their training begins at the 558th Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

While checking Holloman Air Force Base's air-space schedule, Capt. Blain (right), Capt. Tyler (left) and Staff Sgt. Allen, all members of the 29th Attack Squadron, talk about the day's weather and how it may affect the remotely piloted aircraft flights.

While checking Holloman Air Force Base’s air-space schedule, Capt. Blain (right), Capt. Tyler (left) and Staff Sgt. Allen, all members of the 29th Attack Squadron, talk about the day’s weather and how it may affect the remotely piloted aircraft flights. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

After reporting to the training squadron, pilots in training travel to Pueblo, Colo., to attend the two-and-a-half month RPA flight screening program. Here, they learn to pilot a DA-20 Diamond, essentially a powered glider, and receive nearly 40 hours of flight training.

Afterward, they travel back to the 558th TS to complete the RPA Instrument Qualification course, where they learn to read instruments and receive 47 hours of simulator training, flying low-level and cross-country sorties.

“Basically, if you took undergraduate pilot training for a traditionally manned airplane, took out all the manned sorties in that training and just left the academics and simulators, that’s what we teach them here,” said Maj. Jack Stallworth, the 558th TS director of operations. “It’s still very much like undergraduate pilot training.”

After the future pilots complete RFS and RIQ, they must complete the RPA Fundamentals Course, which teaches them the basics of combat employment, where they learn Air Force doctrine, rules of engagement, chain of command and more, so they’ll be as ready as possible for their first combat mission.

Down the hall from the RPA pilots are future sensor operators in training.

“The sensor operators complete a five-week training course that teaches them the different RPA systems, the cameras they’ll be using, the lasers they’ll be shooting and the different weapons they might employ,” Stallworth said.

The most important timeframe for both an RPA pilot and sensor operator during training is when they work together for the first time in a mock ground control station that’s linked to two high-speed gaming computers.

“For some of the enlisted, it’s one of the first times they’ve interacted with an officer. That could be a captain talking to an airman basic,” Stallworth said. “If you think back to that time, you might believe you’re not supposed to talk to that person, and that’s a bad thing if you’re aircrew. If the pilot is screwing something up, we need that enlisted member to realize that his input is valuable and he can save the mission.”

After the pilots graduate from the program at Randolph AFB, they’re assigned to a Predator, Reaper or Global Hawk. Their next stop is a formal training unit to be trained on that specific platform, according to Stallworth. Sensor operators are sent to Holloman AFB, N.M. to continue their training.

“We train all these crews to be able to go out a month after they graduate and be able to tell the good guys where the bad guys are hiding,” Blain said.

While warfare can be essentially broken down into good guys versus bad guys, RPA operations in real life aren’t quite like what you see on the silver screen.

“It’s definitely not like the movies that portray RPAs going off, doing their own thing without people telling them what to do. That absolutely does not happen,” Randy said. “We’re possibly even more manned than a traditionally manned aircraft, in the sense that we have our pilot, sensor operator and ‘intel’ person working with potentially dozens of other people who have eyes on our feed.”

“We are not drones.”

As an MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, Staff Sgt. Will, controls the targeting cameras in flight, as well as guides weapons to their target after being released.

As an MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, Staff Sgt. Will, controls the targeting cameras in flight, as well as guides weapons to their target after being released. Only in the Air Force, are the responsibilities of a sensor operator, entrusted to senior airman through senior NCOs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee)

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[Editor’s note: For security reasons, the last names of certain individuals in this story have been removed.]

  • John Patrick Cooney

    Looking hard…lol!

  • Jmm

    Bless them all. There’s a lot to learn in a short timeframe. We are grateful for their service and ability.

  • Dave

    Great article. Respect to Holloman’s Pred/Reaper Crews for all you do, and kudos to TSgt Powell for telling their story with skill and precision.

  • Retired SMSgt

    I will forever be proud of my time as a MQ-1B ISO / SEFE. Leading and serving alongside the dedicated and stellar Airmen of the 432d Wing, ANG, and USAFR was a highlight of my career. Always remember, up is down and down is up. KFH

  • louisbaron

    Much appreciated but little known.

  • Hal E Peno

    Great article. One thing I’ve never understood is why they wear flight suits.