A Reaper drone comes in for a touch and go landing during a training program… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — As part of an effort to extend the military's "warrior culture" to unmanned planes, the Air Force is overhauling how it trains the crews that operate its rapidly growing fleet of Predators, Reapers and other remotely piloted aircraft.
The changes in training will affect hundreds of personnel who fly the unmanned aircraft remotely over war zones from distant bases and control their powerful cameras and targeting systems.
The effort is part of a move by the Air Force to put as much emphasis on drones as it does on traditional fighters and bombers, officials said.
It also underscores the continuing expansion of the role of unmanned aircraft in the hunt for militants in Afghanistan and the increasing importance of the airmen who operate them.
Each of the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers is operated by two crew members. One is an Air Force pilot, who flies the craft. The second is a "sensor operator" who controls the plane's camera and its targeting laser, used to guide missiles and bombs.
When the Air Force first began flying armed Predators over Afghanistan, image analysts were in the second seat; they are extensively trained on how to interpret spy satellite pictures.
But after years of flying missions in Afghanistan, senior Air Force officers concluded they had the wrong people in that job. Instead, officials want the second crew member to focus less on interpreting imagery and more on helping fly the plane and strike targets.
"We are rewriting the Air Force's DNA," said Chief Master Sgt. Victor Allen, who is the career field manager for enlisted aviators.
The first group of recruits to receive the revamped training finished this month.
The new training is a mix of the technical -- details about the radar, camera and laser systems -- and what Allen calls "infusing the Air Force warrior culture" into the job.
"They need to understand the battle space. They need to understand working with a crew," Allen said. "This is absolutely flying a vehicle, and we want someone dedicated to this duty."
The Air Force in recent years has drastically expanded its investment in unmanned planes. Officials want a fleet of more than 200 unmanned planes, enough to have 65 in the air at one time. To reach that level, under Air Force plane-to-crew ratios, officials said they need about 1,400 pilots and 1,100 sensor operators. The Air Force now has only 317 airmen in the sensor operator field and must train hundreds more.
For recruits, the unique challenge of the unmanned planes is keeping focused on the idea that they are in a war zone, even if they are physically half a world away, flying the planes from a base in the Nevada desert.
"You do not want to feel you are not in the actual fight," said Airman Paul South, 20, of East Smithfield, Pa., a member of the first class of new sensor trainees. "You are in the fight, and you need to realize what is on the line every time you are doing your job."
Before now, sensor operators trained for nine months to learn to interpret video and spy satellite pictures. But experience has shown they do not have time to analyze imagery while the plane is in flight.
The new recruits must train to be part of an air crew, then take a sensor operator course, followed by training in fundamentals of remotely piloted aircraft.
"They are taking us basically from scratch and reshaping us," said Airman Joshua Davidson, 22, of Spokane, Wash., another one of the first recruits.
The Air Force is not eliminating the work of intelligence analysts. New technology being deployed this year will vastly increase the number of video feeds and the demand for imagery analysis. But those experts will be working at other stations, not as part of the team flying the aircraft.
The new career field is appealing to new enlistees who want to feel they are performing a crucial role in current U.S. military operations.
"If you turn on the news any day," South said, "you see something about another airstrike."