National Harbor, Maryland - The first four enlisted airmen training to fly remotely piloted aircraft will start class in October, the head of Air Education and Training Command said Monday.

"Our first enlisted RPA students will begin the program next month," said Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, speaking to reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference here.

"So it's here," he added.


The opportunity has been a much anticipated move that will open one of the Air Force’s most in-demand career fields to enlisted airmen. They’ll have the opportunity to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions.

Air Force leadership hasn’t shut the door on enlisted airmen flying strike RPAs like the MQ-9 Reaper, but said they want to see the results of the Global Hawk endeavor first.

According to Roberson, the plan is to start off with three classes of four enlisted airmen each over the next few months. The Air Force has dubbed them ‘EPIC’ – Enlisted Pilot Initial Classes.

"Right now, the going-in plan is that the training we give to the enlisted pilots is going to be exactly the same as what we’re giving our officer pilots," the general said. "So right now there is no difference. We did that very deliberately."

The first 12 airmen that will make up the three starting classes come from across the service and have a range of experiences.

"All four of the very first class that begins next month are very experienced and even familiar with RPA operations," Roberson said. "These are going to be tech sergeants, master sergeants, who are either already sensor operators for other RPAs, or are in some way very familiar with the operations that occur."

But some of the airmen also won’t have any RPA expertise.

"By the time we get to the 12th EPIC member, we are bringing in somebody who is not familiar, never been exposed to it, and comes from a different training area, so that we get the full gamut of somebody who really knows what’s going on all the way to somebody who’s never been exposed to it," Roberson said.

The general said he expects the initial training to take about six or seven months, at which point the service will "make any adjustments that we see are necessary before we start the real full-up RPA enlisted program," he said.

Those initial enlisted pilots will join the 24 RPA officer pilots per class that Air Force training is also producing. Soon, however, the enlisted pilots could start taking over the duties.

"The way that we’re approaching this is each enlisted pilot that comes in is going to replace what would have been an officer. So it’s not additive, it’s a replacement for," Roberson said.

Eventually, Roberson said, he believes the career opportunity could be a draw for the service.

"I think the word is going to spread among the enlisted force, I think it’s going to be very positive, and I think it’s actually going to help with recruitment," he said. "I think in many ways recruitment may go up because enlisted members are going to have an opportunity that they haven’t had for a long time."