The first formal selection board that will choose which enlisted airmen will train to fly remotely piloted aircraft is meeting this week.
The Air Force Personnel Center said in a Tuesday release that the selection board is considering 185 active-duty enlisted airmen, who made it past the initial qualifying phase and then submitted their application packages. The board convened on Monday and will finish Thursday, AFPC said.
AFPC spokesman Mike Dickerson said in a follow-up email that the board is likely to choose 30 airmen to start training at Initial Flight Training School in Pueblo, Colorado, as well as five alternates. The board will announce who it selected at the end of February. Two of those airmen will begin training as early as April, Dickerson said, and the others will follow in subsequent classes, two at a time.
The enlisted airmen who are selected will learn how to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unarmed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone. The Air Force announced in December 2015 that, after a long review, it had decided to experiment with having enlisted airmen fly the Global Hawk as a way to help ease the demand on the RPA community.
The Air Force initially chose 12 enlisted airmen to be the first class of RPA trainees, called the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class, or EPIC. The first four of those began their training in October, and the second group began Jan. 18. The third group is scheduled to start March 21. Those airmen were chosen through a different process than the standard selection board.
"Integrating enlisted pilots into the RQ-4 community enables the Air Force to meet mission requirements as the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission grows, while providing an opportunity to our highly skilled enlisted force," Chief Master Sgt. Eric Rigby, AFPC's enlisted aircrew assignments chief, said in the release.
AFPC said in November that 305 active-duty enlisted had qualified to submit their applications.
The release said that the enlisted RPA follows the "whole person concept" of reviewing applicants' entire military personnel records, and is as close to the undergraduate flying training selection board as possible.
The Air Force hopes to have as many as 100 enlisted airmen flying Global Hawks by 2020, roughly half the total 198 Global Hawk pilots.
The Air Force could eventually allow enlisted pilots to fly armed drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper, but wants to see how they do on the unarmed Global Hawk first.
Interest in flying Global Hawks is running high among enlisted airmen. AFPC said last fall that undergraduate flying training typically draws applications from about 200 candidates, but that it received more than 800 for this class.
Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, head of Air Education and Training Command, told reporters in September that the Air Force deliberately set the enlisted airmen's training up to be no different from officers' training.
Initial Flight Training is held at Pueblo Memorial Airport, and is taught by contractor instructors. Pueblo's 1st Flying Training Squadron, under the 306th Flying Training Group at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, oversees the RPA flight training.