History was made in 2016 when the first four enlisted airmen became the first to start training to fly remotely piloted aircraft.
In 2017, dozens more could follow. The Air Force is set to significantly ramp up its efforts to build a cadre of enlisted airmen able to fly unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk drones that will conduct high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions at up to 60,000 feet
Eight other enlisted airmen were also selected to start training as part of the first phase of the enlisted RPA program, and will begin over the next few months.
In November, the Air Force said that 305 active-duty enlisted airmen are in the running for the second phase. A selection board will meet in February to choose 37 for RPA pilot training as early as May.
The Air Force hopes to have as many as 100 enlisted flying Global Hawks by 2020, about half the total corps of 198 Global Hawk pilots
The Air Force announced in December 2015 that it would allow enlisted drone pilots, making them the first enlisted airmen to fly in the service since World War II. And in October, four enlisted airmen — three master sergeants and one technical sergeant — made up the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class that convened at Initial Flight Training School in Pueblo, Colorado.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James visited the school later that month to meet with the first enlisted pilot students, calling them "pioneers."
Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, head of Air Education and Training Command, said in a September briefing with reporters that the aspiring enlisted pilots' training will not be any different from the training officers receive.
James and other top Air Force officials have shot down suggestions that the service bring back the warrant officer program, saying that the current enlisted system already produces quality non-commissioned officers and senior NCOs.
While the Air Force is starting enlisted airmen on unarmed ISR drones, James has said the service is not closing the door on having them fly armed platforms such as the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper.
Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.