WASHINGTON — At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, becoming a fighter pilot is still a hotly coveted goal.
But slowly, a culture change is taking hold.
Initially snubbed as second-class pilot-wannabes, the airmen who remotely control America's arsenal of lethal drones are gaining stature and securing a permanent place in the Air Force.
Drawn to the flashy drone strikes that have taken out terrorists including al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen to the terror group's No. 2 strongman Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan, airmen are beginning to target unmanned aircraft as their career of choice.
It's a far cry from the grumbling across the air corps a few years ago when Air Force leaders — desperate to meet the rapidly escalating demand for drones — began yanking fighter pilots out of their cockpits and placing them at the remote controls of unmanned Predators and Reapers.
The shift is critical as the Air Force struggles to fill a shortfall of more than 300 drone pilots to meet the U.S. military's enormous hunger for unmanned aircraft around the world.
Some airmen are even volunteering to give up the exhilarating G-force ride in their F-16s for the desktop computer screens and joysticks that direct drones over battlefields thousands of miles away.
The difference is often generational, but many pilots see drones as the future of air combat.
Drone pilot Maj. Ted began his Air Force career as an F-16 pilot but shifted to flying drones and now says he won't go back to flying a fighter jet. He said piloting a drone is empowering because every day, it has a direct impact supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military doesn't allow drone pilots to make their full names public because of concerns the pilots could be targeted.
Asked which is harder to do — manned or unmanned flight — he said that at times, he's been more overcome by the torrent of information pouring in during a drone flight than he was in the cockpit.
"In an F-16, to form a three dimensional picture, I look outside," said Ted, who flew F-16s for about four years before switching to armed Reapers, a drone that can carry Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.
"In an aircraft, you can look outside, and you know how high you are from the ground. You know that the guys I am supporting are over there and the bad guys are over there," he said. "But here I have a picture, and it shows me turning left, but I don't feel myself turning. I don't feel the speed; I can't look quickly and see where everybody's at."
Instead, he said, "I have multiple computer screens showing two-dimensional information that I have to then mentally build that picture."
Col. J.J. Jinnette, the division chief in charge of the Air Forces' combat force management, agreed that even though drone pilots aren't physically in the aircraft, "they get a great deal of job satisfaction. They can see that what they are doing is making an impact downrange."
Would Jinnette, a former F-15E squadron commander who flew fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, make the same choice Ted did?
His answer came quickly.
"No. I'm a fighter pilot," said Jinnette. "I love flying. You're talking to someone who just loves flying."
To attract more drone pilots, the Air Force has created a formal new career specialty within the service and is ending the system that forced drone assignments on fighter pilots. The new system creates a separate training pipeline for drone pilots.
In a recent survey, the Air Force asked 500 airmen who started out as pilots but had been shifted to drones if they would like to stay on in the unmanned aircraft field. There were 412 volunteers.
Those results, according to Air Force leaders, show that while a new career field may take 20 years to fully develop, this one is on its way.
Despite the end of the Iraq war and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, top military leaders staunchly defend plans to boost the drone fleet in order to meet intelligence, surveillance and targeting needs of U.S. commanders in other hot spots, including the Pacific, Africa, and South America.
Budget cuts could slash that spending, but members of Congress have largely supported the unmanned aircraft programs and voiced little opposition to the drone fever that has gripped the military. The military's spending on drones — which includes aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known by the acronym ISR, as well as the hunter killers used for air strikes — has grown from roughly $2.3 billion in 2008 to $4.2 billion this year.
"My current position allows me to see where almost every ISR asset in the world is being utilized," Lt. Gen. John Kelly recently told a Senate committee. "And what I can tell you from that is that there's simply not enough ISR to go around. It's obviously concentrated in a couple parts of the world doing very, very, very important work."
Kelly, who is being promoted and will take over U.S. Southern Command, added, "I will make as much noise as I possibly can, within, certainly, the halls of the Pentagon to increase the amount" of drones he gets in his new job.
Right now, drones are completing 57 24-hour combat air patrols a day, mostly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and areas around Yemen and the Africa coast.2 comments on this story
The goal is to increase that to 65 patrols daily by mid-2014, with eight crews each. By 2017, the Air Force wants to have 10 crews per combat air patrols, in order to meet staffing requirements and allow the drone pilots time for schooling, training and other career-building time. Each crew is made up of a pilot, a sensor operator and a mission intelligence coordinator.
To staff 65 combat air patrols, the Air Force will need nearly 1,700 drone pilots and 1,200 sensor operators. Currently there are just 1,358 pilots and 949 sensor operators.
The goal is within reach, said Ted.
"They're going to be on the tip of the spear," he said. "And not just deploying weapons, not just dropping bombs; it will be doing the (surveillance), collecting that intelligence, and really feeding the fight for everyone."