As the demand for MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers around the world steadily grew in 2009, a new career field of aviators emerged to pilot them.
The Air Force began their experimental training program for airmen to fly these aircraft with five beta classes.
Lt. Col. Robert, 15th Attack Squadron commander, was in the third beta class and is now the first Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) pilot (18X), mission control element squadron commander in the 432nd Wing/432 Air Expeditionary Wing.
Beta classes consisted of approximately 10 pilots, each experienced in different career fields and time-in-service. The purpose of variety in RPA pilots was to find the proper candidates and inputs for the new 18X career field overall.
The journey to from the third beta class to MQ-9 Squadron Command was a challenging one, but Robert was determined to secure a spot in the future of air and space power.
Some traditional pilots questioned how successful these new RPA pilots will be with limited time in an actual aircraft. But this new platform and career field brought forth a way of flying and training that is different and effective.
“Our training was not nearly as long as traditional manned-pilots,” Robert said. “The pilot community wasn’t sure if the shortened training would work and asked what was lost by not providing a much longer, traditional pipeline.”
“Each 18X had to kind of prove they could handle themselves,” he continued. “The pressure was never negative. It was more just an uncertainty and caution we had to overcome.”
Despite the uncertainty, Robert took command of the 15th ATKS in June 2020, joining Lt. Col. Hector, 732nd Operations Support Squadron commander, as one of the first 18X squadron commanders in the 432nd WG/432nd AEW.
Hector is also a graduate of the third beta class, and was the first boarded 18X MQ-9 squadron commander in the wing, while Robert represents the Air Force’s first 18X squadron commander of a combat MCE squadron.
As the Air Force continues to chart a path to the lean, agile, decisive and technologically advanced force of talented professionals- it also needs to protect national interests and ensure the nation’s present and future security. While pilots of the 18X community continue to rise to leadership roles, their worth proves to be an integral part of the Air Force We Need.
“The 18X program represents the next evolution of combat experienced pilots,” Hector said. “The new career field is full of young, highly motivated Airmen excited about the mission, focused on saving lives and ready to take the community to the next level.”
One of the ways 432nd WG/432nd AEW Airmen are expected to bring leadership to the future fight is through their predisposition to understand and work toward Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2); their 24/7 operations a living example of constant cross-communication, and integration with intelligence, ground, air and sea components.
“Our community’s desire to learn, our curiosity, and hard work has helped us make a very smooth transition into a community filled with 18X pilots,” Robert said.
Robert explained that 90 percent of the pilots in his squadron are 18X pilots, and he is proud to be one himself. Leaders in the RPA community, he explained, are excited to see what’s in store for the future of their peers as they step into more leadership roles.
“As these undergraduate RPA training graduates mature and garner experience from multiple sets within Air Combat Command, Air Education and Training Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command, the enterprise can expect a group of leaders with an understanding of the history of the enterprise and the direction it needs to go,” Hector said.
The Wing’s first ever 18X MCE squadron commander has high hopes for the future of the RPA enterprise thanks to the professionalism of his peers.
“No one gets after the bad guys like we do,” Robert said. “I’m very proud of the 18X community and it is motivating to have young Airmen with the attitude, work ethic, and commitment to success they have executing the mission.”