After years of debate on whether enlisted airmen should return to the cockpit -- manned or unmanned -- two master sergeants this month achieved the first solo flights since 1961.
The enlisted airmen, only identified by first names Mike and Alex, fulfilled the historic milestone on Nov. 3 after they flew in a DA-20 Katana two-seat, light aircraft over Colorado's Pueblo Memorial Airport as part of the Air Force's Initial Flight Training program, the Air Force said in a release.
The program is mandatory for all manned aircraft pilots, combat systems officers and remotely piloted aircraft pilots, the release said.
The Air Force announced last year it would begin training enlisted airmen to operate the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft. Officials in September touted that the Enlisted Pilot Initial Class, or EPIC, would begin on Oct. 12 with four of 12 total students training alongside 20 recently commissioned officers. The training process spans a whole year, the release said.
The idea to use enlisted airmen as drone pilots has been years in the making.
In 2008, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he was open to the idea given the steadily increasing demand for RPA airmen.
"No options are off the table ... I don't dismiss that as a possibility," Schwartz said at the Air Force Association's annual convention in Washington, D.C.
Then, facing a much higher operational demand and a pilot shortage due to the last fifteen years in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other missions, the Air Force in September announced plans to open to all career fields the job of steering the Global Hawk. The high-altitude spy drone is made by Northrop, based in Falls Church, Virginia.
Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, Air Education and Training Command commander, said at the time that in just a few class rotations, the service will also bring in airmen with little to no experience in RPAs so that we "get the full gambit."
"Each enlisted pilot that comes in will replace what would have been an officer so it's not additive, it's replacement, but I think this is actually going to help with recruitment," Roberson said at the Air Force Association's annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
In recapping its own history, the Air Force said that in 1912, one of the first two pilots in the Army Air Corps was a corporal.
Thousands of enlisted pilots were trained and served in the military throughout World Wars I and II, which would one day include Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to exceed the speed of sound and retire as a brigadier general. The Air Force's Cadet Aviation Program, which oversaw enlisted airmen commissioning as officers to become pilots, ended in 1961.
Now, Master Sgts. Mike and Alex have reignited new turning points.
"It's a great opportunity that we're getting enlisted pilots back into the full force," Master Sgt. Mike, the first EPIC student to fly solo, said in the release. He started his Air Force career in security forces, most recently served as a maintainer and is a 17-year veteran with flight experience.
"I was excited that I soloed, but I have to maintain focus. This is not over," Alex added. Unlike Mike, Alex does not have previous flight training, the announcement said.
"I've got to keep going and make sure that I get completely through the program," Alex said. "I'm the type of guy who, if someone doesn't like an idea and says, 'That's not going to work' and I think it's a good idea, I'm willing to be the guy who says, 'That's a challenge, let's go see if I can do this,'" he said.