WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is preparing to graduate its first pilots of unmanned drones from the elite U.S. 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.
The elite flight schools of the Air Force and Navy are most closely associated with smart, tough fighter jocks. But 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 in the Pentagon, the most important aircraft the U.S. has deployed.
In 2006, the Air Force was able to fly only 12 drones at a time. Today, the service flies 34 regular 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 the Predators and Reapers, then return to their assigned aircraft. But the Air Force would like officers to make a career out of flying unmanned craft and become experts at operating the drones.
"It is safe to say most pilots will always miss getting back in the air," said Lt. Col. Daniel "D.J." 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 to go back and fly," said Maj. Geoff Fukumoto, a F-15 pilot nicknamed "Admiral" who was one of the first to go through the Air Force Weapons School for the Predator and Reaper. "But I think I have found the place the Air Force needs me. Right now, I am committed to this job."
The military beefed up its advanced fighter pilot training after combat losses in the early years of the Vietnam War. The Naval Fighter Weapons School, popularly known as Top Gun, was founded in 1969.
The Air Force's school, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, began training only fighter pilots but has expanded over the years to include many different kinds of aircraft. Graduates are awarded a special insignia for their flight suits, and are known as "patch-wearers."
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," he said.
The first five students will receive their weapons school patches on Thursday and graduate Saturday. They will serve as the program's first instructors, training 10 pilots a year.
Air Force officers proposed adding the advanced training for the Predator and Reaper drones three years ago. But the Pentagon said it could not spare the drones or pilots from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"We have never had an opportunity to do this before because we have been too busy doing combat," said Col. Trey Turner, who oversees training for the unmanned aircraft.
But with 127 Predators, 31 Reapers and 400 unmanned aircraft pilots, the Air Force was given the go-ahead to create the program.
The Predator and Reaper pilots do their debriefings and classroom work at Nellis with weapons school students specializing in other aircraft. They fly the drones from nearby Creech Air Force Base, the control station used to fly drones in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some of the tactics under development are unlikely to be used in Iraq or Afghanistan, such as how to use Reapers to take out sophisticated enemy air defenses. But many will quickly be used in the field. For example, the five graduating officers have learned ways to hide the sounds of the noisy propellers to help keep the drones from being detected.
And the drones may be used to rescue downed pilots. For years, on bar napkins and in post-mission briefings, Air Force officers who fly the drones talked about how they could be used in rescues. But it wasn't until the weapons school training began this year that the pilots worked out precise procedures for using the planes in combat search-and-rescue missions.
"Everyone knew it made sense to send unmanned aircraft in," Lt. Col. Daniel Turner said. "But we didn't know how we were going to make that happen."
The training already is paying off. In recent days, students from the school have been advising crews in Afghanistan on more effective ways to use their weapons.
"We are already having an impact," said Maj. Joseph Campo, the weapons school's director of operations.