MELISSA BLOCK, host:
An increasing number of Air Force pilots are hopping out of the cockpit, but they're still flying combat missions. They're now sitting inside a small building in the Nevada desert and piloting a missile-carrying unmanned aircraft. The drone is on the other side of the globe, high above the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
NPR's Tom Bowman visited these pilots at Creech Air Force Base.
TOM BOWMAN: It's pitch black - o'dark 30, the military would say. Air Force Captain Lamont Anderson quietly walks out of his condo in Las Vegas, leaving behind his slumbering wife and newborn daughter.
Captain LAMONT ANDERSON (Predator Pilot, Air Force): We have a little baby girl and we're getting to the point now where she's starting sleeping through the night, but she'll still get up every now and again. So anytime we're able to get some sleep, we pretty much treasure it.
BOWMAN: He hops in his car and heads north on a highway that cuts through a wasteland of sagebrush. In a hazy distance are the dry and craggy peaks of the Spring range. Anderson turns into Creech Air Force Base just as the sun begins to rise.
Unidentified Man: Good morning, sir.
Capt. ANDERSON: Good morning. How are you doing?
Unidentified Man: Good. You have a good one.
Capt. ANDERSON: You, too. Thanks.
BOWMAN: Anderson is becoming a commuter combat pilot like dozens of others here. In the coming weeks, he will complete his training on the Predator - a 26-foot-long drone aircraft that carries a video camera as well as twin Hellfire missiles.
Just a few years ago, there were only about 35 Predator pilots. By next year, there will be nearly 160.
(Soundbite of noise)
BOWMAN: It's an ungainly aircraft with a bulbous head. There are long, thin wings. The tail flaps are not horizontal, but angled down. It looks like a bad high school science project. It arcs over the air base as Anderson heads to work.
Anderson walks into the ground control station, a cramped windowless room with low light and a hum of computers. There's a bank of illuminated maps. One day, his commands will be beamed by satellite to hostile lands. He adjusts his chair and taps a keyboard.
In front of him is a live video from the Predator's camera - thousands of feet above the desert floor. Buildings and trucks come into view. He zooms in and out. Grainy images appear of a few airmen loading a truck.
On his left, he grabs a shifter that controls the drone's speed. On his right, a pistol-grip stick adjusts the flaps. The stick also has a trigger for the missiles he could unleash one day, high above Iraq or Afghanistan.
Capt. ANDERSON: We'll press this button to launch the missiles.
BOWMAN: Anderson flew C-130 cargo aircraft in Iraq, delivering troops and supplies, sometimes medevacing the wounded to hospitals. Until today, the toughest thing for him was landing on a short runway. Now, it's the thought of launching those missiles. He has never fired one.
Capt. ANDERSON: It does weigh on me. It's not something that would prevent me from doing the job that I'm required to do. It's not something that would - I would question in the heat of battle or anything like that.
BOWMAN: And he admits that firing a missile from thousands of miles away also nags at him.
Capt. ANDERSON: I'm so far removed, you know? Here we are at a remote location, far away from battlefield. I can't really see - I can't physically put my eyes on it. I have a camera.
BOWMAN: Anderson says before he fires any missile, a superior officer near the battlefield will have to give the okay, not just based on the Predator's pictures, but intelligence analysts and sources, soldiers on the ground watching a target - all are supposed to work together to prevent mistakes.
Capt. ANDERSON: Whatever shot I may have to take, I feel confident that it's going to be the correct thing to do considering the circumstances.
BOWMAN: That's what happened in June of last year when President Bush made this announcement about terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Good morning. Last night in Iraq, the United States military forces killed the terrorist al-Zarqawi. 6:15 Baghdad time, special operation forces acting on tips and intelligence from Iraqis confirmed Zarqawi's location and delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.
BOWMAN: What Bush and others didn't talk about was the role of the Predator. Officials here say the Predator pilots in Nevada logged 600 hours watching Zarqawi as he moved around Iraq. They got the orders to fire at Zarqawi's car, but a computer glitch prevented the Hellfire missile from launching. So, an F-16 rolled in and finished the job.
It's what the Predator brings to the fight that is making it increasingly popular among commanders. It can offer nearly constant surveillance with its camera of insurgents or wounded soldiers alike. It can also help ground troops by painting an enemy location with an infrared beam - a beam that can only be detected by those wearing special night-vision goggles. Soldiers nicknamed that beam the Finger of God.
Captain CHAD MINOR (Predator Pilot, Air Force): More emphasis is going towards this technology.
BOWMAN: That's Captain Chad Minor, another Predator pilot. He stands near the runway as the drone circles above. He once flew F-16 fighters making long patrols in Iraq's no-fly zone before the war.
Capt. MINOR: And I think this is the future of where the military is going.
BOWMAN: Predators now fly 13 continuous missions, split between Iraq and Afghanistan. By next year, that number will nearly double.
And later this fall, another drone called the Reaper will be appearing in the skies over Afghanistan and flown by a pilot in Nevada. Reapers fly higher and faster, and it's bigger. It will be able to carry four 500-pound bombs.
So pilots are seeing unmanned aircraft as a growth industry, even though not long ago, some brash fighter pilots like Minor were ridiculed for wanting to fly a remote-controlled aircraft.
Capt. MINOR: Oh, you can imagine I get some of snickering, some teasing here and there.
BOWMAN: So what do you think?
Capt. MINOR: They just kind of make fun of me, asking how's the 1-G seat going? Do I - is my back sore from sitting down all the time? Have I spilled coffee on myself yet or anything like that?
BOWMAN: There were tons of pilots joining the Chair Force. But now, many more pilots are signing up, a decision that eases the worry of their families. Minor says that's another reason for the ever expanding drones, there are no pilots to become casualties.
Capt. MINOR: If you ask a lot of the wives, they just get scared of their husbands going up and flying all the time, every day. It takes a while for them to get used to it, because every once in a while, once every six months, you'll hear that someone else ejected. The heart thumps a little and they're like, was that my husband? Was that someone I know? Are they okay?
BOWMAN: Anderson says his sleeping wife is content he will be on the ground in Nevada and not in the skies over Iraq.
Tom Bowman, NPR News.