Front to back: Staff Sgt. Jesus, 558th Flying Training Squadron sensor operator instructor, and 2nd Lt. James, 558th FTS Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilot trainee, are instructed by Capt. Gary, 558th FTS instructor pilot on weapons employment procedures. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexandria Slade/Photo illustration by Maggie Armstrong) (Photo by Maggie Armstrong)
Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas —
(Editor's note: For security reasons, only first names are used in this article.)
Five years after the first class of enlisted Airmen graduated from the 558th Flying Training Squadron's Basic Sensor Operator Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, the squadron continues to produce remotely piloted aircraft crews for what has been called "one of the most 'in-demand' platforms the Air Force provides to the joint force."
The groundbreaking training program, which started from scratch at JBSA-Randolph in 2009 and has graduated more than 1,400 students since then, consists of the RPA Instrument Qualification Course and RPA Fundamentals Course for officers and the BSOC for enlisted Airmen.
"The RIQ course, which is adapted from the current T-6 syllabus, uses simulators to train students to fly an aircraft within the United States' national airspace using Federal Aviation Administration and Air Force instrument procedures," Capt. Gary, 558th FTS assistant director of operations, said. "The RFC is designed to transition future RPA pilots from T-6 instrument flying skills into the combat environment with emphasis on the differences of the RPA operational environment, control and exploitation of the battle space, and honing decision-making skills and communication."
For most officers, RPA training takes more than six months - two months of initial flight training in Pueblo, Colo., two and a half months for the RIQ course and one month for the RPA fundamentals course.
The academic load is heavy - 140 hours for the RIQ course and 86 hours for the RFC - and students also spend nearly 60 hours in simulators.
When the program began, officers with prior operational experience cross-trained into the new career field; since 2011, the program receives a majority of its officers from the commissioning sources: the U.S. Air Force Academy, Reserve Officers Training Corps and Officer Training School.
BSOC students learn the basics of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper RPAs, including weapons, cameras, radio procedures and full-motion video, and are introduced to other basic skills such as chart usage, navigational concepts and crew integration, Tech. Sgt. Alan, 558th FTS NCO in charge of BSOC training, said.
They also get an idea of how they fit into combat operations and learn about the intelligence community and the role they play in that mission.
Enlisted students spend six days at JBSA-Lackland for the Aircrew Fundamentals Course and move on to JBSA-Randolph for the BSOC, where they study for one and a half months, totaling 160 academic hours and 36 simulator hours.
"BSOC is a Community College of the Air Force-accredited three-level program," Gary said.
Officers and enlisted members come together during the last four days of the RFC and the BSOC, then head to their formal training units at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., or Beale AFB, Calif., for three to five months. Some graduates attend the Joint Firepower Course at Nellis AFB, Nev., before joining their FTUs.
Gary said one of the advantages of RPA pilot training is cost, which is 10 percent of the price tag for traditional pilot training. Another advantage is that RPA pilot training takes less time than traditional pilot training.
"They get to theater operations in a shorter time frame - less than half the time," Alan said.
Gary called the RPA pilot and sensor operator career fields "rewarding."
"In the RPA community, you have a chance to make an impact on the battlefield just about every day," he said. "You work directly for people on the ground."
RPA pilot training is attracting the attention of other countries, Gary said. A course for officers from other nations begins this month.
"Everybody wants a part of the mission," Alan said.
Gary listed multitasking, communication skills, digital competency and critical decision-making as qualities sought in RPA pilots and sensor operators.
"We also want outside-of-the-box thinkers," Alan said.
RPA pilot and sensor operator training continues to evolve along with the Air Force's vision of the future for its RPA program, Gary said.
"As available simulation technology advances, our courses are better able to simulate the operational environment and we constantly evolve our syllabi to integrate and take advantage of the technology," he said.
Gary, who volunteered for the program, said he would make the same decision again.
"I had an opportunity to affect more change in the Air Force than I ever would as a manned pilot," he said.
Gary also said RPA training is proving successful.
"Our graduates do very well," he said. "They have a very high success rate. I have no doubt the Air Force will rely less on manned aircraft because of the safety and increased capability that RPAs provide."