MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
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.
LAMONT ANDERSON: 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: Unidentified Man: Good morning, sir.
ANDERSON: Unidentified Man: Good. You have a good one.
ANDERSON: You, too. Thanks.
BOWMAN: Just a few years ago, there were only about 35 Predator pilots. By next year, there will be nearly 160.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOISE)
BOWMAN: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GEORGE W: Good morning. Last night in Iraq, 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: 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.
CHAD MINOR: 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.
MINOR: And I think this is the future of where the military is going.
BOWMAN: 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.
MINOR: Oh, you can imagine I get some of snickering, some teasing here and there.
BOWMAN: So what do you think?
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.
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: Tom Bowman, NPR News.
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