SAN ANTONIO – News 4 WOAI got an exclusive look at remotely-piloted aircraft training classes at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
The military uses RPAs to patrol our border with Mexico and fight over active war zones in the Middle East.
The technology allows troops to fly planes from halfway around the world.
“I’ll just take my foot off the gas,” an Air Force Major says. "I'll be watching the air speed right here as it slows down.”
He’s landing a fighter plane using nothing but the instruments and his instincts.
"It's very small actually,” the major says. “It only holds two people."
Today, it’s a simulated flight: no real airplane and no real weapons.
But after eight months of training, RPA pilots from Randolph will fly fully-armed aircraft without ever leaving the ground.
“Pretty revolutionary,” Lt. Col. Scott Cerone says.
He knows firsthand, flying RPAs is about as close to a war zone troops can get without actually being there.
"You don't have to put a pilot in harm's way,” Lt. Col. Cerone says.
They’re sometimes called drones, but there’s a big difference: a drone flies a pre-programmed route, and RPAs are controlled by pilots – they’re not just sitting in the cockpits. Instead, they’re flying planes from air force bases in the U.S.
"They're able to stay over the battlefield and support the troops over the ground by either employing air-to-ground missiles or laser-guided bombs,” Lt. Col. Cerone says.
The Obama administration has increasingly used RPA missions in the War on Terror.
The same plane can stay up in the air for up to 24 hours with pilots working in shifts to man the joystick.
"It's not a video game,” Lt. Col. Cerone says. “These pilots and sensor operators are well aware of either the impacts of their weapons or the impacts on the ground forces."
RPAs also play important roles in humanitarian missions.
"The global hawk was actually the first aircraft over the nuclear reactor in Japan after the nuclear reactor meltdown,” Lt. Col. Cerone says.
“Just roll to the left,” the major in the simulator demonstrates.
At Randolph, future pilots are earning their wings in the classroom and in the simulator.
"We throw them curveballs,” the major says. “It’s always going to be something that you weren’t prepared for.”
They’re learning how to troubleshoot an RPA before the joystick – and fellow service members’ lives – are in their hands.
Lt. Col. Cerone says even though RPA pilots don’t leave the U.S., flying the plane over a war zone is still a very emotional experience. He explains pilots fight in a war during their whole shifts at work, but once they go home to their families, often can’t talk about their jobs.
Once again, the pilots at Randolph are just in training. They do not control RPAs from San Antonio.