18X pilots learn RPAs first

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Logan Clark
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
A new generation of Air Force officers trains with the knowledge they will fly a Remotely Piloted Aircraft as their first airframe, and many of them will come to Holloman to train.

This new Air Force Specialty Code, 18X, denotes officers who are designated as RPA pilots without going through undergraduate pilot training, as their traditional aircraft counterparts do.

The process, while shorter, mirrors traditional UPT, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brent (last name withheld), RPA instructor pilot.

"The students start in Pueblo, Colo., getting about 40 hours in light aircraft," he said, referring to a program all pilots attend called initial flight screening, which allows students to gain basic flying skills and a sense of situational awareness in the air. "Then they go to Randolph [AFB, Texas] for two to three months for instrument simulator flying and academics."

Then, he said, the students come to Holloman to start training for their individual RPA platform, either the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper. Currently, the MQ-9 has not received its first 18X pilots, but the MQ-1 has graduated several dozen.

The entire process takes approximately one year to complete, but is a condensed, difficult curriculum, said U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Zachary (last name withheld), a current student at the 6th RS.

Zachary also said he was surprised at how academically challenging the course was, but enjoys the training here at Holloman.

"This is the best course I've had throughout the entire pipeline, because we're getting more RPA specific. We're getting the chance to fly the Predator physically from the [ground control station]," he said. "Here, all of our instructors are either former RPA pilots or RPA sensor operators with tons of experience."

Brent agreed with this statement, speaking to the difficulty and quality of the program.

"It is the most realistic training I've gone through in my career, and I would bet the realism isn't matched by any other aircraft training course," he said. "The students are really motivated, and they have put in the extra effort to succeed."

Even though the program is more condensed than UPT, the students are excited about their career field and are itching to go operational, according to Zachary.

"I just want to get started. We've been at this for a year, and I've wanted to do it for a while," said Zachary. "I'm ready to go to my operational squadron."

The main point Zachary wanted to drive home was the RPA platform has a real, beneficial impact for deployed troops, and he wants to correct any misconceptions.

"Flying RPAs is nothing like playing a video game. Anyone who thinks that couldn't be more incorrect," he said, citing the real consequences of flying an aircraft. "We fly real aircraft and employ real weapons. There's nothing fake about that."

(In accordance with current Air Force guidance, the last names of the RPA operators in this story have been omitted due to operational security constraints.)