HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE – There is a touch of southern New Mexico in nearly every military operation that uses remotely piloted aircraft, colloquially referred to as drones.
The majority of RPA pilots and sensor operators, who control the planes’ cameras, have trained at Holloman Air Force Base on MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers.
“Most of our students leave here and go right to war,” Lt. Col. Jim Price said.
Holloman gave a tour of remotely piloted aircraft to international media and the Las Cruces Sun-News on Thursday, explaining the manpower behind the planes.
The base is home to the largest RPA training center in the Air Force with more than 700 students this fiscal year, Lt. Col. Jeff Patton said.
Remotely piloted aircraft are controlled by pilots on the ground rather than those in the air.
Cameras attached to the aircraft relay live images to the crew, often working in the United States. The pilots then send commands to the plane via satellites. Only for landing and takeoff are the planes operated by crew abroad.
Despite the increasing use of the technology in military and civilian life, misconceptions abound, the airmen told the Sun-News.
There is little difference between pilots in manned and unmanned vehicles, Price said.
“Really it’s the mentality of ‘Now I’m going to go sit on the cockpit on the ground versus the cockpit in the air,’ ” he said.
The airmen emphasized the planes are always manned by someone on the ground, contrary to popular belief.
“It’s very similar to flying real aircraft,” said Capt. Mike, an RPA pilot. “Someone always has hands on them. There’s always a human in the loop. … It’s tough to fly in airplanes. It’s tough to fly these.”
All RPA operators covered the last names on their jackets with duct tape Thursday, withholding their full names due to the “nature of the job,” public affairs officials said.
“People don’t talk about operating RPAs,” Price said, noting family members of RPA pilots and sensor operators, let alone the public, often don’t know and understand the work the crews do.
“Because they’re doing it here in the United States, people don’t look at it like you’re going overseas,” he said,
Crews trained at Holloman have manned RPAs used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the NATO-led effort in Libya, he said.
RPAs have also been used in peacetime, including after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to look for survivors and places of egress in flooded areas, Patton said.
Remotely piloted aircraft spend about 97 percent of the time doing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work, Patton said.
Crews will find, identify and track a person whom the federal government has named a target. The aircraft can also be equipped with missiles to “eliminate” the targets, whether they be people, vehicles or buildings.
“Most of the time you’ll be flying in circles and looking at stuff,” Price said. “But 2 to 3 percent of the time, it’s very exciting.”
The RPAs are also used to escort convoys, search for missing people, monitor and eliminate a site where improvised explosive devices are being built or support on-the-ground teams in a raid, he said.
“It’s a gamechanger for people on the ground,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremiah, a sensor operator. “Imagine being on the ground during war and not being able to see what’s around a corner.”
RPAs provide the advantage of knowing what’s around that corner, he said.
The aircraft can stay in the air for more than 20 hours, longer than manned aircraft.
“That gives us better intelligence,” said Capt. Mike, a pilot. “That gives us more confidence in what we’re looking at. … We can stare at a target for weeks and learn the pattern of life and know with certainty that’s our target.”
It’s a public misconception that the pilots choose the targets themselves, Maj. Matt said. But top officials across all branches of the military nominate targets, then the central command approves them, he said.
Once higher-ups nominate a target, “we go out and find him,” which can take months, he said.
Most RPA pilots went through traditional pilot school, though a pipeline has been developed to streamline RPA training as the technology’s use spreads, Patton said.
Now, more RPA pilots than traditional pilots are trained each year, he said. Most are trained at Holloman, then some learn the aircraft at much smaller schools in California and Nevada.
The New Mexico trainees begin on nine simulators before working with live drones in airspace shared by the local military installations.
The students practice the basics: How to maneuver the aircraft to see around a building, how to follow a vehicle, said Maj. Dennis, an RPA instructor.
After training is complete, students head to squadrons across the country, conducting missions around the world.
Though the pilots are often thousands of miles away from the plane itself, the men interviewed Thursday said they take missions as seriously as if they were in the cockpit.
“Everybody knows it’s not a video game,” Price said. “Flying your first combat mission, it really opens your eyes: This is not on the range; these are real people.”
Matt added: “It’s deadly serious.”