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Charting a new Course: Air Force sees culture shift as drone mission gains momentum

RELATED STORY: The war room: Daily transition between battle, home takes a toll on drone operators

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — The culture of the Air Force is in many ways like high school. Fighter pilots are the jocks, the cool kids who rule the campus. And drone pilots? They’re the AV club.

So it’s no wonder that the explosive growth of the unmanned aircraft mission has been met with scoffing resistance from the fighter pilots, who knocked bomber pilots off the top perch of the cultural pecking order back in the 1960s.

Now a small, remote-controlled aircraft powered by the equivalent of a snowmobile engine is threatening their supremacy.

“Unmanned aerial systems” — the preferred lingo for the drone program — still has a stigma to shake. But Predators and Reapers are the most requested air asset by ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and next year the Pentagon will buy more drones than manned aircraft.

The Air Force will never be the same.

“This is like the transition from the cavalry to the tank — it’s that significant a change in culture,” said Col. Eric Mathewson, commander of the Pentagon’s UAS Task Force.

UAS started as a “strange sort of organization,” Mathewson said, without technical manuals or developed tactics, because the mission grew faster than anyone expected.

Sent to command the drone mission 10 years ago after a back injury ended his F-15 career, Mathewson said what he found at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert was a small group of disgruntled people.

All were pilots who flew other aircraft — fighters, bombers, tankers and others — and were performing an assignment unrelated to their aircraft.

“We use the term ‘career broadening,’ but really it was like an offshoot in their careers,” Mathewson said. “And they weren’t, maybe, that happy or motivated.”

Manipulating pilotless aircraft from the ground while sitting in a control room inside a trailer just doesn’t match the bravado of many pilots accustomed to flying “Mach 2 with their hair on fire,” as they like to say.

Nor does it fit with their lone wolf mentality. The drone mission requires more teamwork with sensor operators, intelligence analysts and other enlisted airmen who shoulder far greater responsibility since the advent of the UAS program.

“There’s a certain amount of pomp and swagger that goes with being a fighter pilot,” said Lt. Col. David Kent, an F-15E pilot who recently flew Reapers.

Some sent to fly drones believe they are only there “to baby-sit an airplane,” said Senior Airman Jesse Grace, who as a sensor operator controls the drone’s camera alongside a pilot.

To change such entrenched attitudes, the Air Force is contemplating renaming the unmanned aerial systems command “remotely piloted vehicles” because officials want to emphasize that the drone mission is pilot-centric.

What’s more, the Air Force is now creating a distinct career track for both enlisted airmen and officers in the drone program. And the service is experimenting with training drone pilots without sending them to traditional flight school. In September, members of the first such class earned their wings after training almost exclusively on the ground and for only half the time of pilots of manned aircraft.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, told the graduates they marked a transition for the Air Force in how the service staffs, and ultimately views, the drone program.

“People are worried about being a second-class community or something,” Mathewson said. “That’s nonsense.”

But change is not coming quickly.

To meet demand, the service is pulling 100 pilots a year directly from flight school to go to the drone program. So far, none has been a volunteer.

When the announcements are made there are “a lot of sad faces,” with pilots “a little bitter about where they are headed,” said Col. Trey Turner, who oversees UAS training at the Pentagon.

Ask how the Air Force Academy’s newly launched UAS program is viewed around campus and the cadets just laugh.

“Everyone makes fun of it,” said sophomore Andrew Kleman. “There’s a stigma, that we’re nerds or whatever. It’s not as cool as flying fighters.”

Capt. Ted Schultz, a former F-16 pilot, was sensitive to that stigma when he spoke to the cadets in the UAS program last month.

“You’ll pick up less chicks at a bar,” Schultz explained, “but you’ll never be irrelevant in any future battle the Air Force fights.”


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