Air Force reopens history book, begins training enlisted pilots


The Air Force mission is one that’s steeped in history. At the core of its history is aviation. Times have changed and so have the aircraft. Warfighters cover the globe; aircraft travel at the speed of sound and demand for highly skilled aviators has never been greater.

To meet the critical demand for highly skilled pilots, the Air Force is looking back to valuable lessons learned. Dating as far back as the early 1900s, the Air Force found value and success in training enlisted aircrews. To meet today’s needs and alleviate the strain of high attrition rates, the Air Force recently announced its strategy to begin integrating the enlisted force back into flying operations via the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.

Currently, only officers are allowed to pilot manned or unmanned aircraft. However, on November 3, two master sergeants completed their first solo flight of the Diamond DA-20 Katana from the 1st Flying Training Squadron at Pueblo Memorial Airport, Colorado.

Like the flying sergeants before them, master sergeants Alex and Mike, whose full names are not being disclosed due to the nature of the mission, are helping forge a new Air Force legacy.

(Photo Credit: SSgt Cory Payne/Air Force)
(Photo Credit: SSgt Cory Payne/Air Force)

The two senior noncommissioned officers are part of the new EPIC program, which means the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class. A small, select group of active-duty airmen are participating in the program, which consists of training at the 1st Flying Training Squadron in Colorado, instrument training at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas and basic qualification training at Beale Air Force, California. The entire program takes about a year for each pilot to become fully certified.

In a November 4 release, Air Force Education and Training Command wrote that one of the first two pilots in the Army Air Corps in 1912 was a corporal, and the Air Force’s Cadet Aviation Program, which ran through 1961, allowed enlisted airmen to earn their commissions after finishing the program.

“It’s a great opportunity that we’re getting enlisted pilots back into the full force,” Master Sgt. Mike, who was the first to fly, said in the release. “There are a lot of opportunities that could become available to enlisted airmen.”

Combatant commanders, who face an ever-evolving battlespace, will soon realize the benefit of this forward-thinking initiative.

“The integration of enlisted (remotely piloted aircraft – RPA) pilots into RQ-4 Global Hawk operations is part of a broader effort to meet the continual RPA demands of combatant commanders in the field, ensuring they are provided with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in their areas of responsibilities worldwide,” Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James said at the time of the initiative announcement in December 2015. “This action will make the most of the capabilities of our superb enlisted force in order to increase agility in addressing the ISR needs of the warfighter,” James said. “Just as we integrated officer and enlisted crew positions in the space mission set, we will deliberately integrate enlisted pilots into the Global Hawk ISR community.

The Air Force sees the EPIC program as just the beginning of new things to come and view it as the first step to developing future operating concepts within the multi-domain ISR enterprise.

Master Sgt. Alex said in the release, “Instructors are seeing if you can handle the stress of being able to make your radio calls on time, maintain proper altitude, contacting all your approaches and departures, hitting the right waypoints, getting to where you need to go. They put you in a lot of stressful situations so that when you get out there you can handle it.”

Although today’s mission is less conventional and aircraft are much more modern than days gone by, the Air Force is hedging its bet once again on the dedication and commitment to excellence of the enlisted corps. Through the Global Hawk platform, airmen are proving their ability to seamlessly integrate new capabilities thus better positioning the force for the dynamic, modern aviation environment.

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