RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As the defense department braces for hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts, one program is not likely to be slashed: the military's remotely piloted aircraft drones. NPR's Rachel Martin paid a visit to an airbase in New Mexico where pilots train to operate these systems. She has more on how remote technology is changing aerial warfare and the pilots who wage it.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Steve, a lieutenant colonel, grew up wanting to be in the Air Force, and that meant one thing.
STEVE: I joined hoping to be a pilot.
MARTIN: To him, flying is physical.
STEVE: Flying a fighter, there's a lot of physiological impacts on the body, whether that's pulling G forces - up to 9 Gs - or whether it's hearing the airplane around you, the noises that you hear when you're flying the actual airplane and the inside of it. You feel those things, you hear those things, and you react to them as you need to.
MARTIN: Steve joined the Air Force in 1997 and started out flying F15s. But he quickly started to see signs that his world was changing. He was given a chance to fly drones, and he took it. Now he's out in New Mexico helping the Air Force build a different kind of pilot.
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MARTIN: I'm standing here at the entrance of Holloman Air Force Base, and right at the entrance, there's a display of old planes. I'm standing right in front of an old F15. The last time these flew out of here was almost 20 years ago. Now Holloman Air Force Base has become famous as the primary training ground for pilots who fly unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.
Holloman is the biggest training center of its kind in the country. They train pilots here to fly the MQ1 Predator and the MQ9 Reaper, two of the military's most important weapons systems. These remotely controlled planes can hover in the air 24 hours at a time, collecting intelligence or carrying out a strike in Afghanistan. But the pilots are thousands of miles away, sitting in front of a bank of computer screens.
MATT: This is our simulator bay.
MARTIN: We're in a small room, jam-packed with computer processors and monitors.
MATT: We have a high resolution scan of Kabul down to the building, so this is that scan.
MARTIN: This is Matt - like Steve and every other instructor and student at Holloman Air Force Base, they're only allowed to give me their first names, because of what the Air Force says are, quote, "security concerns." At their workstations, the student pilot sits on the left, the sensor operator on the right - that's the person who monitors the aircraft and weapons systems. Matt loads in images of Afghanistan and gives the assignment.
MATT: They have a tasking to go provide a convoy escort for some Humvees...
MARTIN: This is where student pilots first get their hands on the remote controls.
MATT: Then they're going to scan the route that they're supposed to travel on and see if there's any threats to that convoy.
MARTIN: Remember, they're flying a drone over Afghanistan, but they're sitting in New Mexico.
The training program at Holloman started in 2009. Slowly, service members started volunteering to fly the Predator drone. This year, the Air Force says it'll train more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. There are two big reasons for the shift. The first was 9/11. America's borderless war on al-Qaida catapulted drone technology onto the frontlines.
The second reason: budget cuts. Air Force fighter pilots started to see their squadrons disappear. That's what happened to another Lieutenant Colonel named Mike. Up until a year ago, he was an F15 pilot. Now he's also an instructor at Holloman.
MIKE: I felt, you know, with the F15 drawdown, that that community was closing up and there'd be more opportunity, but also a chance to be part of the fastest-growing industry in the Air Force.
MARTIN: Now the challenge for Mike, Steve and all the instructors here is to convince students that when they're operating drones, they are flying real airplanes.
MIKE: We can walk in here and through here.
MARTIN: We walk out on the flight line, and Mike points to what look like metal, rectangular storage containers.
MIKE: This is called the GCS, the ground control station.
MARTIN: After they've mastered the simulator, student pilots come here to take Predators and Reapers out on test runs. They control the planes from inside the ground station. A shift can go for hours, until another team comes to relieve them.
MIKE: There's a crew swapping out right now. What's up?
MARTIN: We walk further out on the flight line, and Steve shows me one of the test planes.
STEVE: This is the MQ 9, the Reaper.
MARTIN: He says training can be the only time drone pilots actually see the planes they'll fly.
STEVE: You normally just walk out to the container that we walk passed on the way out here, and you sit down and you fly. But you don't actually see this and you're physically dislocated from where it's at.
MARTIN: Until recently, most drone operators were regular Air Force pilots. Now, the service is reaching out to people who've never even flown before. And that has caused friction within the Air Force as it tries to redefine what it means to be a pilot.
KELLY: There's a cultural divide. There is.
MARTIN: That's Kelly. He's a 46-year-old Air Force reservist from Texas, now a student at Holloman. Kelly grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot, but his vision's not that great. However, he can fly drones. And Kelly says that irks fighter pilots who see themselves at the top of the Air Force pyramid.
KELLY: Part of it is an ego - and I hate to say an ego trip, but it is.
MARTIN: The Air Force has been working to bridge the divide between these two groups of fliers. First off, drone operators are called pilots. They wear the same green flight suits as fighter pilots, even though they never get in a plane. Their operating stations look like dashboards in a cockpit. But all that has made tensions worse. Aaron is another Holloman student. He used to fix military communications equipment. Now he's training to operate drones.
AARON: There's still a lot of animosity. You see people that are in a conventional aircrew that wonder why we get to wear the flight suits, even though we don't leave the ground, why do we need flight physicals, why do we get incentive pay, stuff like that.
MARTIN: Steve and Mike, the former fighter pilots turned drone instructors, say the Air Force is going through a cultural change. It gets back to that distance drones create between the pilot and his plane. It's something Steve is still trying to make sense of for himself.
STEVE: So that distance and that separation is there that prevents you from feeling that piece of the airplane, or me being as one with the airplane. But what it also does is it takes you - the risk out of you flying the airplane, so you don't have to worry about being shot down.
MARTIN: So the very thing that protects these pilots - not being in the cockpit - is what makes them wonder if they are really pilots.
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MARTIN: Outside, an F22 flies overhead, a plane with a fighter pilot in the cockpit. Holloman does fly fighter jets out of here. It helps remind new pilots like Kelly how they're supposed to think of themselves when they're flying a drone.
KELLY: I felt like I was actually flying an airplane. I mean, I actually am flying an airplane.
MARTIN: At least that's what he has to tell himself every time he sits at a computer, operating a plane thousands of miles away that he's never seen.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.
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