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US hones training of pilots who fly drone aircraft

By Julian E. Barnes
Los Angeles Times / June 11, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is preparing to graduate its first unmanned drone pilots from the elite US Air Force Weapons School, a version of the Navy's Top Gun program, in a bid to elevate the skills and status of the officers who fly Predators, one of the military's fastest-growing aircraft programs.

Over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the MQ-1 Predator and more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper craft have become, to many people in the Pentagon, the most important aircraft the United States has deployed.

In 2006, the Air Force was able to fly only 12 drones at a time. Today, the service flies 34 constant combat air patrols. As the program has expanded, the job of keeping the best pilots flying drones has proved to be a challenge.

Until recently, pilots would work on Predators and Reapers, then return to their assigned aircraft. But the Air Force would like them to make a career of flying unmanned craft and become expert at operating drones.

"It is safe to say most pilots will always miss getting back in the air," said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Turner, who leads the Predator and Reaper training at the weapons school. "But we see where the Air Force is going. We understand we are adding to the mission in a crucial way."

Giving top drone pilots a shot at the best training the military offers is one way to ensure the most talented officers stay with the program and do not return to manned aircraft.

"I would love and go back and fly," said Major Geoff Fukumoto, an F-15 pilot who was one of the first to go through the Air Force Weapons School for the Predator and Reapers. "But I think I have found the place the Air Force needs me."

Fukumoto spent the last four years operating Predators and Reapers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Attending weapons school gave him the chance to help push the limits of the aircraft. "To take our weapons systems and recognize where we can excel, that is something I was looking forward to," Fukumoto said.