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Pilot-physician makes history by earning RPA wings

By Dan Hawkins | 502d Air Base Wing Public Affairs | May 11, 2017

JBSA-RANDOLPH, Texas —

A pilot-physician made history here May 5, becoming the first Air Force unmanned aircraft pilot-physician with his graduation from the 558th Flying Training Squadron’s undergraduate remotely-piloted aircraft training program.

Maj. Joe, a flight surgeon who has been in the Air Force since 2003, will fly the MQ-9 Reaper once he reports to his operational unit.

The graduation of URT Class 17-10 was already historic for the obvious reason – the graduation of the first three enlisted personnel to enter the rated pilot ranks since 1961. 

For Maj. Joe, his journey to becoming a pilot-physician started upon being initially assigned to flight medicine and hearing about the program from his commander.

“In flight medicine, you get the chance to go up in the aircraft and experience what the pilots are going through,” he said. “Being up in the air made me start thinking about trying to do both…to be a doctor and a pilot.”

Once embedded in an operational flying unit, Maj. Joe will report directly to the flight operations chain of command and begin work to become a fully-qualified pilot.  This includes qualifying in as many mission elements of the weapon system they are assigned to as possible.

However, pilot-physicians still have responsibilities to the medical world.  According to Air Force Instruction 11-405, pilot-physicians must maintain their medical credentials as a flight surgeon in addition to their flying duties.

Maj. Joe, who graduated from medical school at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2008, pointed out the value in having a foot in both the medical and aviation communities.

“The biggest contribution (pilot-physicians) make is having people who can sit in both the medical and pilot worlds – we act as translator between the two worlds and speak each other’s language,” he said. “We can tell the medical world what the pilots are doing and what their needs are, and at the same time, we can help educate the pilot community about the medical implications of flying.”

The importance of pilot-physicians to the Air Force can’t be understated, said Col. David Drichta, who supervises the Air Force's Physiology program as Undergraduate Flying Training Division Chief for Air Education and Training Command.

"We have just a handful of pilot-physicians across all the major weapon systems and their contribution to Aerospace Physiology is critical,” Drichta said. “Traditional flight surgeons fly as crewmembers while a pilot-physician is a line pilot in an Air Force flying squadron.  Maj. Joe becomes the first physician to help our Air Force understand the long term physical and psychological impacts of Ground Control Station & Remotely Piloted Aircraft Operations as a true Reaper pilot."

For Maj. Joe, the process of learning to fly was full of interesting parallels to being a doctor.

“You really have to have extreme concentration and focus to fly,” Maj. Joe said. “Being situationally aware, having to learn a second language...you really are under a lot of stress.”

Wearing pilot wings and being the first pilot-physician to fly in the remotely-piloted aircraft ranks is a huge source of pride and responsibility.

“I am extremely proud and understand my responsibility,” Maj. Joe said. “These wings on my chest represent the credo of the American Airman to me. These (wings) represent all the Airmen who have come before me.” 

 (Editor’s note: Only first names were given because the Air Force limits disclosure of identifying information to first names for all RPA pilots and sensor operators throughout their careers.)