Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance is the number one most requested capability by combat commanders and for more than a year enlisted Airmen have been helping the Air Force meet this demand by piloting the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has continually expressed the importance of the ISR force and finding innovative methods to relieve the pressure of getting commanders on the ground more data.
“Looking at new ways to operate within our [remotely piloted aircraft] enterprise is critical given that ISR missions continue to be the number one most requested capability by our combatant commanders. We expect that will only continue to expand,” said Goldfein. “We know our enlisted Airmen are ready to take on this important mission as we determine the right operational balance of officer and enlisted in this ISR enterprise for the future.”
In light of this, the Air Force selected 12 active-duty Airmen last year to become RQ-4 pilots as part of the first Enlisted Pilot Initial Class, the first enlisted Airmen to fly aircraft since 1942.
“I wasn’t expecting to be selected,” said Tech. Sgt. Courtney, an RQ-4 Global Hawk pilot who was part of the initial class. “It was a huge honor and I was extremely excited and nervous. I’m glad I applied, a lot of great opportunities have come from it and I’ve learned a lot more about the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) enterprise by being able to move to the pilot side.”
Courtney has been part of the ISR career field throughout her career. Over the years she’s filled several roles, including one as an imagery analyst and sensor operator for the MQ-1 Predator and the RQ-4, where she sat next to the pilot operating the aircraft’s camera during missions.
She always wanted to be a pilot and was going through the process of applying for Officer Training School to come back and fly RPAs when this program was offered as an exclusive volunteer possibility by the Air Force.
Courtney says even though it’s unique paradigm shift to have officer and enlisted pilots training and flying side-by-side, the dynamic of operating and conducting a mission is no different than on any other airframe.
“It’s important because everybody’s opinion matters when you’re flying an aircraft or executing a mission,” said Courtney. “We’re trained and we’re expected to fill an expectation and a skill level of that crew position. So regardless of what the rank is, our job is to get the mission done and if the senior airman sensor operator has a better idea and it works and I agree with it, then that’s what we’ll go with. Rank doesn’t play a part when we’re executing the mission.”
For RQ-4 pilots, there are a lot of missions.
Last year, the Air Force was tasked with nearly 25,000 ISR missions, collecting 340,000 hours of full motion video and producing 2.55 million intelligence products – which averages almost five products per minute that close intelligence gaps and support target analysis and development.
The Enlisted Pilot Initial Class training was created to provide more pilots to the RQ-4 program and ensure the Air Force is able to keep up with the high demand for its ISR products.
But, training new pilots takes time as the RPA training program spans almost a full year. Airmen begin Initial Flight Training at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colorado, where they learn to fly and complete a solo flight in a DA-20 Katana aircraft. After IFT, students progress through the RPA Instrument Qualification Course and RPA Fundamentals Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, and then Global Hawk Basic Qualification Training at Beale Air Force Base, California.
At the conclusion of this training Airmen are rated, instrument-qualified pilots who are Federal Aviation Administration certified to fly the RQ-4 in national and international airspace and mission-qualified to execute the high altitude ISR mission.
“We pin their wings on them,” said Keith Pannabecker, a civilian simulator instructor at the 558th Flying Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. “The creation of the career field was the best thing the Air Force could have done because it created an avenue for folks to volunteer. Beforehand, we were robbing Peter to pay Paul from the manned and unmanned airframes.”
Pannabecker, who is a retired Air Force colonel who helped with the inception of the RPA enterprise, thinks the Air Force is on track with a smart solution to a real problem, which is a shortage of pilots around the whole Air Force.
“We no longer pull pilots from the manned aircraft,” said Pannabecker. “Now, we’ve got our fresh group of motivated young people that are saying, please pick me to come be RPA pilots, which wasn’t always the case with asking for volunteers from the manned aircraft pilots. So, what we have now is a win-win.”
Since the graduation of the initial enlisted pilots in 2017, the Air Force added 30 more Airmen into the training pipeline this year and plans to grow to 100 pilots by 2020. By then the Air Force expects nearly 70 percent of Global Hawk missions will be commanded by the “Flying Sergeants.”
“So, enlisted pilots are a very small force right now and we’ve relied on each other for information and we are each others’ shoulders to lean on,” said Courtney. “It’s going to take some time for enlisted pilots to integrate into the squadron and find the perfect flow, but we are very integrated into the mission.”
Courtney said during February 2018 all RQ-4 missions in the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale were flown by enlisted pilots.
“I’m hopeful in the future for the enlisted pilots and an equal playing field, so we won’t be seen as enlisted or officer, but we’ll be seen simply as pilots,” said Courtney.
Courtney believes the only thing that matters is providing intelligence that’s vital to the men and women on the ground fighting every day.
“It’s something that I value and I appreciate. Being able to be the commander of those missions means a lot to me and I take it seriously,” said Courtney. “I have so much respect for the other men and women that fly alongside of me. I’m thankful I’m able to provide that protection and the extra level of intelligence that they need to get their mission done.”