On any given day, Tennessee National Guard pilots are flying a plane in a combat mission somewhere in the world, from a cockpit on the ground at a military air base in the United States.
"Once you get in, whether it is training or whether it's an actual combat mission, you kind of get lost in the fact that you are not physically in the aircraft," explained the pilot of an Remote Piloted Aircraft, or RPA, serving with the Tennessee Air National Guard. WBIR-TV agreed to keep his identity secret after his commanders expressed concerns that the pilot and his family could become a target based on his current duty.
For the first time this fall, Tennessee Air Guard commanders granted WBIR-TV permission to interview one of the first pilots trained in the unmanned flight program that has become a central mission of the 118th Wing, based in Nashville. That transition has unfolded during the last year as those civilian warriors have moved from flying and maintaining C-130 cargo planes and into what pilots call the "unmanned world."
"It has been a rapid mission," said Lieutenant Colonel Keith Allbritton, who says dozens of pilots with the Tennessee Air Guard are now trained to fly unmanned aircraft in combat.
"It's not really a drone at all. A lot of people [hear drone] think a machine controlled by a machine. Again, there is always a pilot at the controls," said Lt. Col. Allbritton.
Dozens of pilots have graduated RPA training from the Tennessee Air Guard. They come from all walks of life. In the civilian world they hold down jobs as commercial airline pilots, bankers, mortgage brokers, and one pilot used to work at a Waffle House. Commanders say candidates wash-out just as they do any other pilot training school, but they are also now training more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft than any other plane in the Air Force inventory.
"It's kind of exciting to be on the ground floor of something," said Pilot X.
At the moment, RPA pilots must head to other air bases in the U.S. to fly the RPAs. But the 118th Wing plans to install the ground-based cockpits on the Nashville air base in the next two years. And commanders say in the near future, we will likely see RPAs in the skies above Tennessee. The Federal Aviation Administration and lawmakers at the state and federal level are working on rules that will govern unmanned flight.
"When we bring this [RPA] back to the states, at some point, it will get here, and Hollywood wants to make movies with them, farmers want to look at their crops with them… the possibilities for applications are pretty limitless," said Lt. Col. Allbritton.