HAMPTON -- The Air Force has chosen 10 enlisted airmen to begin training as pilots for the first time since World War II.
The airmen were selected as part of a program that will allow them to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions are the most requested by combatant commanders around the world and demand for remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, will likely only increase, according to the Air Force.
"In the future, RPAs may act as wingmen to manned aircraft," Capt. Trisha Guillebeau said in an email to The Virginian-Pilot.
The Air Force has not released the identities of the first airmen selected for the program or where they are based.
By 2020, the Air Force wants about 70 percent of day-to-day Global Hawk missions to be flown by about 100 enlisted pilots with leadership positions filled by officers. The Air Force plans to use what it learns flying Global Hawks with enlisted aircrews to inform whether a similar approach is applied to other weapons systems, Guillebeau said.
"It is too soon to speculate on any expansion of enlisted aircrew beyond the RQ-4 program," she said.
The enlisted airmen will begin training in October and are expected to graduate in 2017. Nomination packages for the next class are due in November.
The airmen will first learn to fly a traditional aircraft -- the DA-20 Falcon -- in Pueblo, Colo., before advancing to classes in remotely piloted aircraft fundamentals and Global Hawk Basic Qualification Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, and Beale Air Force Base, Calif., respectively.
"There has never been a doubt that our enlisted corps could step up and accomplish this mission for our Air Force," Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody said in a statement. "We'll certainly see that as the first enlisted airmen go through the training. They will set the tone for the future of the RPA enterprise."
From 1912 to 1957, nearly 3,000 enlisted men served as pilots. Of those, 11 achieved the rank of general officer, 17 became flying aces and more than 150 were killed in action.
Those who make it through the Global Hawk program will either join the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base or the 348th Reconnaissance Squadron at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.