For the first few weeks of his training, as he learned how to fly remotely piloted aircraft, Master Sgt. Alex felt like he was in over his head.
The RPA sensor operator, who joined the Air Force in 2000, had no previous experience flying before joining the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class at Initial Flight Training School in Pueblo, Colorado, last October.
Absorbing the barrage of flight terms and acronyms was like learning a foreign language, he said. Other students seemed to know them, but it was a challenge for him. At times, he wasn't sure he'd make it.
With the support of his family, instructors and classmates, Alex powered through. By the time he made his first solo landing in a single-engine, propeller-driven DA-20 Falcon on Nov. 3, he knew he could make it.
"I was like, I can actually do this, I didn't kill myself," Alex said, laughing.
On Friday, the first three enlisted airmen in Air Force history — identified as Master Sgt. Alex, Master Sgt. Mike, and Tech. Sgt. Mike — graduated from undergraduate RPA training at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. The Air Force would only identify them by their first names and ranks to protect their safety.
They will next head to Beale Air Force Base in California in June to continue their training to qualify to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Their graduation marks a significant milestone in the Air Force's effort to stand up a small cadre of enlisted RPA pilots. After a lengthy review, the Air Force in December 2015 announced that it would allow enlisted airmen to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unarmed reconnaissance drone. The Air Force has not had enlisted pilots since World War II, when it was part of the Army.
Master Sgt. Mike — the only enlisted RPA graduate who came in with previous flying experience — was honored by being named a distinguished graduate.
There were also about 20 recently commissioned officers in the class, and one of those officers was also named a distinguished graduate.
Master Sgt. Mike, who has been in the Air Force 17 years and was previously a KC-10 engineer and instructor, was already a licensed pilot who has been flying aircraft such as Cessna 172 Skyhawks, DA-20s and Piper Warriors, Arrows, and Archers on his own time since high school in the late 1990s.
Master Sgt. Mike, one of the first enlisted airmen to graduate from remotely piloted aircraft training, operates the flight controls of a T-6 Texan II simulator at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas on May 4. Master Sgt. Mike was one of two distinguished graduates in his class.
Photo Credit: Joel Martinez/Air Force
Around last spring, Master Sgt. Mike said that an email went out to Air Force leaders asking for nominees with experience in air crew, and his name was put forward. He said his background and civilian flight experience helped him get picked.
Master Sgt. Mike said the undergraduate RPA training was more structured and strict than flight training he had gone through in the civilian world, but otherwise wasn't that different.
"There was no real interpretation of rules," Master Sgt. Mike said. "You had to do it their way every time, or you were wrong."
With his flight experience, Master Sgt. Mike found the early training enjoyable, and not too difficult. From now on, RPA trainees who are already rated and have flight experience may be allowed to skip the early part of training, on a case-by-case basis.
"When you paid for flying for the last 17 years, and you got to fly an airplane for free, and not pay for gas, that always puts a smile on your face," Master Sgt. Mike said. "There wasn't a flight that I didn't enjoy out there" in Colorado.
But flying an RPA is different from the planes he's used to, he acknowledged. An RPA pilot's view is restricted to what the cameras show him, instead of allowing him a wide range of vision, and he doesn't feel the turbulence and vibrations buffeting a plane.
"Not having those visuals makes everything a little bit more difficult, because you have to think a little further ahead than the airplane actually is," he said.
Master Sgt. Alex, left, one of the first enlisted airmen to graduate from remotely piloted aircraft training, operates an RPA simulator at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas on May 4, with Lt. Col. Aaron, 558th Flying Training Squadron Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamental Course director, at his side.
Photo Credit: Joel Martinez/Air Force
Manned aircraft next?
After learning the basics of flight at Pueblo — which included about 38 hours flying the manned DA-20, academics, and learning navigation, how to correct for wind, and takeoffs and landings — the trainees came to Randolph in January for the Remote Instrument Qualification course.
This included flying the T-6 trainer and learning to fly using only instruments. Tech Sgt. Mike said instrument flying was the most challenging part of his training.
Alex said his experience as a sensor operator will help him be a better RPA pilot; he’ll be able to think ahead, predict what his own sensor operator will need, and position the Global Hawk to get the best view.
"I’ve been there, I know what that sensor operator needs to do, so I can start pre-planning ahead and be able to set that sensor operator up and make [his] job easier," Alex said.
All three said they’d be interested in flying manned aircraft for the Air Force, as well as armed RPAs such as the MQ-9.
"There are a lot of guys that hide in the enlisted ranks that are very experienced and are extremely capable and could do it any day," Master Sgt. Mike said.
They also share the opinion that the Air Force should think about bringing back the warrant officer program for certain flying career fields.
"It’s going to create a track for enlisted and for officers that just want to fly," Tech. Sgt. Mike said. "It’s an outlet that is more appealing than knowing that you’re going to hit a certain point in your career and now you have to ... put yourself in that management role. I think that’s the heart of the pilot retention problem right now. Those guys love, love, love what they do."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.