HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico — The U.S. military is rushing to train more pilots for remotely piloted aircraft as its reliance on drones grows in places such as Afghanistan and Yemen.
Holloman has long been the testing ground for cutting edge warplanes. These days, German training jets are the few manned aircraft to be seen here.
The skies at Holloman are now ruled by remotely-piloted aircraft, or RPA's, flown by crews that never leave the ground.
Their controls are mainly screens and joysticks. It is here that hundreds of young airmen and women are trained to conduct missions thousands of kilometers away in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Jay, one of the trainers, said, “The thing that’s drilled into our mind from day one is that this is not a video game. This is real. Ultimately, we could be put into situations where we do use weapons to take lives of enemy combatants.”
It used to be that the operators of remotely piloted aircraft had flown manned aircraft.
Now, the military is rushing to boost the number of RPA operators, and this teaching center takes people straight from basic training.
Using remotely piloted aircraft costs a fraction of what manned flights do, and full training takes 126 days, about half the time need for manned planes.
For pilot trainers like Lindsay, who recently had a baby, there are other advantages. “The fact that I am not physically there. I’m sitting stateside controlling an airplane that is in a different theater. It’s hard to wrap your head around. However it’s also truly great too in that you kind of have time to go back to your family, for one thing," she said.
But that does not mean the experience is without risk.
Pilots do not give out their full names in part because of death threats they receive, mostly from within the U.S.
For Jay, who operated drones in combat, the job is anything but stress free. “Sometimes it does wear on you. One of the disadvantages to being on an RPA is I see this stuff and then I go home. In combat situations, it’s really kind of hard to see this stuff and then on a drive that could be four or five minutes decompress and then go home and see your family. Switching gears is sometimes kind of a hard thing," he said.
Finding and destroying explosives that kill U.S. ground troops is one of the things RPAs do.
For pilots here, the belief that they are saving American lives makes the job much easier.