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US Air Force's class of 2009: pilots who won't fly

The graduation of eight officers without flight training points to the increased use of remote-controlled aircraft for reconnaissance and intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The US Air Force has graduated eight officers from an experimental training program for the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.

Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/Sipa/Newscom

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The US Air Force is marking something of a milestone as it positions itself to better address the need for round-the-clock intelligence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, the service graduated the first class of pilots without flight training.

Just eight officers graduated from an experimental training program for the MQ-1 Predator, a remote-controlled aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). But it marks a shift for a service that has defined its leaders by their prowess as flyboys and that is now coming to terms with the less glamorous but critical demands of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also suggests the Defense Department's shift to fighting so-called irregular warfare is starting to be institutionalized across the department.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, calls the graduation a "transition point" for the Air Force in terms of the way it trains the kind of pilots that are needed today.

"It's a departure from how we've selected and trained pilots for remotely-controlled planes before," he says. Unlike most of the service's other UAV pilots who have undergone 12- to 18-month pilot training for their various aircraft, the eight officers have never flown Air Force planes. And they may never do so. The new training program is four to six months and includes basic flight screening and equipment training.

Deptula emphasizes that this is a test program, and he's not yet sure it will become permanent.

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