BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
In 2017, the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class (EPIC) consisting of 12 Airmen became the first enlisted pilots since 1942 to fly operational sorties. These highly qualified pilots were assigned to the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale and the 348th RS at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, where they began flying reconnaissance missions in the RQ-4 Global Hawk alongside their commissioned counterparts.
“A good way to describe a Global Hawk pilot is a mission commander who also controls an aircraft through potentially contested airspace,” said Master Sgt. Michael, 12th RS RQ-4 pilot and EPIC student. “Our situational awareness has to be high when we are flying missions because we do a lot of coordinating through multiple agencies.”
The enlisted pilots were introduced into the force after going through a competitive selection process and the same rigorous remotely piloted aircraft training. The goal of the program was to help meet requests for RPA support and increase the number of pilots.
According to Maj. Dan, 12th RS director of staff, the enlisted pilots account for approximately 39 percent of the pilots in the squadron and have become an integral part the RQ-4 community.
“They have been much more operationally focused than administratively focused,” said Dan. “They deploy to all of our forward operating locations and we now have a master sergeant in charge of a combatant command shop making sure everyone is flying correctly.”
Dan said there are plans to increase the number of enlisted pilots until there is a 50-50 split and eventually put them in charge of the remainder of combatant command shops.
With the introduction of a large number of new personnel, Dan is hopeful the decision to bring in enlisted pilots will pay dividends down the road.
“They bring a lot of experience to the program and the continuity they are going to provide is amazing,” said Dan. “Since they are enlisted, they can stay in jobs for more than one or two performance reports [unlike the officers]. They can also stay at a base for multiple years and develop relationships with the support personnel. When you have a technical or master sergeant who has been here for seven or eight years they have the contacts and can get stuff done.”
Since their inception, the enlisted pilots have been performing at the level of their commissioned equivalents in training and have brought valuable experience from their previous career fields.
“The squadron has been very receptive of us,” said Michael. “It has brought in new influence to the squadron from outside agencies. A lot of strong leaders from other communities have been brought in and helped build the Global Hawk enterprise.”
Michael believes the Air Force’s decision to allow enlisted Airmen to fly for the first time in more than 70 years was the right one and he hopes the program can expand in size and scope to meet the growing demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).
“The program is increasing the capability of strategic ISR throughout the Air Force,” said Michael. “Since I was in the first class I am proud I have been able to help build this program and influence it to be something substantial with the help of others and I hope they expand it to other RPAs as soon as possible.”