NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Inside a plain beige trailer, a pair of aviators stare intently at a bank of computer screens. Air conditioners hum loudly in the background.
The sensor operator zooms in on an object on the ground more than 4,270 metres below. The pilot moves a joystick, turning a drone that's kilometres away and flying at a sluggish 193 km/h over the Nevada desert as part of an exercise to find a downed pilot.
"It's an odd shape, but I don't see any movement," the drone pilot says before pushing the joystick and moving on. U.S. air force policy prohibits identifying drone pilots by name.
It's not like strapping into an F-16 and exceeding the speed of sound, but drones like these are overshadowing fighters and bombers that for decades have been the mainstay of America's unchallenged air superiority.
The rise of drone warfare has meant a dramatic cultural shift for the air force, whose leadership has for decades been dominated by officers who made their mark flying combat aircraft.
Nellis Air Force Base is the home of the air force's elite Top Gun school for fighter pilots. Drone pilots share space here and have their own tactics course.
The drones fly from small trailers not far from a flight line where fighter jets regularly roar down the runway and climb sharply over mountains surrounding the base.
Drones were initially dismissed by many pilots as nothing more than video games, and it took prodding from the Pentagon before the air force embraced the aircraft. Today, the air force pins more wings on new drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots.
The smallish aircraft, fitted with powerful cameras for surveillance and sometimes missiles for airstrikes, play a critical role in Afghanistan. They provide 24/7 surveillance of the battlefield and have the ability to hit precise targets.
The air force has embraced drone pilots without reservation. The drone pilots get nicknames or call signs and stride the halls of the Air Force Weapons School in flight suits like any other pilots.
It's important symbolism, officers say.
"They're 100 per cent accepted and integrated," says air force Lt.-Col. Cedric Stark, a helicopter pilot and squadron commander at Nellis.
Air force officers blanch at using the word drone, which they say suggests it is a dumb aircraft that flies itself. The accepted term is remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA. The message is that pilots control the aircraft, even if from a remote location.
"We don't just give call signs to any guy who walks in the door," says Lt.-Col. Joseph Campo, head of the RPA program at the weapons school.
Some pilots say the air force embraces the drones at the expense of manned aircraft.
"I guarantee you there is not a fighter pilot around who wants to fly a drone," says Dan Hampton, a former air force officer who has written a memoir about his exploits as a fighter pilot. "I don't want to orbit over a point for 12 hours and take pictures."
J.D. Wyneken, director of the American Fighter Aces Association, says the older generation of pilots view drone operators as less than true pilots. In the view of many aces, "just the very idea of a pilotless aircraft is dishonourable," Wyneken says.
To be an ace, a pilot has to shoot down five or more aircraft during an aerial duel. There are about 300 surviving aces in the U.S. They could be the last.
"We may be on verge of building our last manned fighter," said Charles Wald, a retired air force general and former fighter pilot who is director of Deloitte, a consulting firm.
-- USA Today