JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
A staff sergeant is the top graduate in his Air Force undergraduate remotely piloted aircraft training class. It’s a major feat considering that historically the Air Force has depended almost exclusively on commissioned officers to pilot its aircraft.
Staff Sgt. Matthew, formerly an aircraft load master, is one of twelve airmen who volunteered and were selected for the Air Force’s enlisted pilot initial class. He is one of seven to complete RPA URT so far.
Matthew’s standing was based on academic performance at the initial flight training program in Pueblo, Colorado and subsequent RPA instrument qualification training at Joint Base San Antonio – Randolph under the 558th Flying Training Squadron.
“This is a testament to the Air Force assessing and selecting highly competent Airmen who, from day one, strive for the perfection required in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and attack missions they will fly every day,” said Lt. Col. Jason Thompson, the 558th FTS commander.
In December, 2015 the Air Force announced that it would begin to include enlisted Airmen in its RPA pilot training. The first three EPIC students started training in October, 2016 and they completed URT in May with one sharing top graduation honors.
Matthew’s URT Class 17-14 began in April, 2017. The class included the Air Force’s first female enlisted pilot and two master sergeants along with two senior and fourteen newly commissioned officers.
“URT was stressful,” said Matthew looking back on his path to graduation. “If I fail as an enlisted pilot candidate in EPIC, it would hurt other people’s opportunity.”
Prior to enlisting in the Air Force almost six years ago, Matthew had a degree in aviation from Embry Riddle University. Despite his formal education, prior to April, he hadn’t flown an airplane since 2011 and he felt added pressure to succeed.
“My fellow enlisted classmates are super smart and very dedicated,” Matthew said. “We inspired each other.”
By graduating first in his class Matthew was presented the Daedalians award. It was another first for RPA pilots and the Daedalians.
The Daedalians promote air power and honor exceptional performance by military aviators including combat systems officers, flight surgeons, and astronauts in flight training programs nationally.
“The Daedalians recognize the tremendous contribution to air power by RPA operators,” said Maj. Gen. Jerry Allen, the Daedalians Foundation chairman.
“We are very proud to honor RPA pilots who are bringing this technology to the greatest Air Force on the planet,” Allen said.
When Matthew compared himself to his commissioned officer colleagues and more senior officer pilots he felt confident.
“I feel with my experience I am ready to go into the cockpit,” Matthew said. “I signed up to fly airplanes. There’s no difference.”
(Editor's note: Surnames were withheld to comply with Air Force guidelines on the disclosure of identifying information for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance personnel)