Air Force Predator Drone Pilots: A New Kind of ‘Top Gun’

Air Force Predator Drone Pilots: A New Kind of Top Gun

As a small boy living near an Air Force base in Florida, Steve Petrizzo would crane his neck as jets roared overhead. “Every day in elementary school I would look up into the sky and see a four-ship formation of F-16s flying over, and I just thought that was the coolest thing,” he recalls. “I always wanted to fly.” By the time he entered high school, however, Petrizzo believed that his poor vision would keep him grounded.

Today, new technologies — and leaders with new policies — have rescued Petrizzo’s boyhood dream. The 28-year-old will soon be fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the skies, as one of the Air Force’s first ground-based Predator drone pilots not to have started out in an Air Force cockpit. The change reflects a shift in Air Force thinking. Instead of carefully polishing and husbanding the service’s costly F-22 fighters and their pilots for future wars, the Air Force increasingly is rolling up its sleeves and helping fight today’s conflicts.

Until recently, the Air Force hierarchy had insisted that the men and women “flying” its MQ-1 Predator drones be full-fledged pilots, even as they kept their feet firmly on the ground in Nevada. But General Norton Schwartz, tapped as the service’s chief of staff last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, felt assigning such rated pilots to drones made little sense after spending $1 million and up to 18 months to train each one.

As the first class of eight purely drone pilots graduated at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas Sept. 25, Schwartz hailed them as pioneers in a long-established tradition of military innovators. “When the steamship, the tank and, yes, the aircraft were introduced for military application, institutional disorder resulted,” the Air Force’s top commander explained, noting that the boosters of these new technologies had been derided as “zealots.” Those piloting drones from electronic consoles on the ground, he conceded, have “encountered the same sort of resistance, even in our own Air Force.”

But the huge demand for the Predators’ eyes in the sky over the battlefield — reconnaissance that can’t be provided by manned aircraft — has muted such criticism. While it took 12 years, from 1995 to 2007, for the Predator fleet to rack up 250,000 flight hours, it reached the 500,000-hour mark just 20 months later. The Air Force currently runs 37 Predator “orbits” 24/7 over Afghanistan and Iraq, which requires about 150 personnel, as many as 10 pairs of pilots and sensor operators and four Predators. While their most important mission is to provide ground troops with real-time video for hours on end, the Predator crews can also fire missiles when high-value targets are identified.

Petrizzo spent much of the first six years of his Air Force career tending to intercontinental ballistic missiles. But he left his Montana base last weekend for his new permanent Predator posting at Creech. He disputes the popular perception of his new job. “When people say it’s a video game — just like playing Xbox — I really take offense at that,” he says. “You have to have an air sense and all that aeronautical decision-making down pat.” While he has never had to fire a missile in anger, he knows that is likely to change once he begins his new assignment. “I’m going to be there to help the men and women on the ground who are risking their lives,” he says. “It lets them see who’s around the corner.”

Although the Air Force insists this Predator training program is experimental and could be scrapped, don’t bet on it. Schwartz told his new pilots the demand for their skills “is insatiable, and shows no sign of abating.” And then there’s the fact that the service just commissioned a new metal pin that Petrizzo and his fellow drone drivers will wear on their uniforms. While its central shield features a lightning bolt connoting the Predator’s remote control, its wings will be identical to those worn by all other Air Force pilots.

Read “Air Force Seeks a Cheaper Way to Fly and Fight.”

See pictures of the history of the Air Force.