For the first time, the U.S. Air Force trained more unmanned aerial vehicle pilots this year than traditional pilots, and some of those pilots are flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from half-way across the world in Fargo.
The Commander of the Fargo-based Air National Guard Wing, Col. Robert Becklund, is moving to the Pentagon to serve on an unmanned aerial systems task force. The move reflects the growing importance of unmanned aerial vehicles in military operations.
Becklund led the recent transition of the Fargo air wing from fighters to unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.
The aircraft provide real-time video feeds to Iraq and Afghanistan that help soldiers on the ground track enemy movements. The Fargo-based pilots can also kill with laser guided rockets.
A couple of years ago, the Fargo unit started flying the Predator. Becklund said the Predator, with a top speed of 135 mph, is a big change for fighter pilots.
Instead of strapping into a high performance jet, the UAV pilots sit in front of video screens, with a keyboard and joystick, flying a plane that's on the other side of the world.
"You know, it's not really flying," Becklund said. "You are flying an airplane, but you're not in it. So you can't hear it, you can't feel it. You're not going to get injured if it decides to crash."
Some Air Force pilots dislike the Predator. Pilot turnover rates in many units are typically high, though Becklund said the Fargo National Guard unit has one of the lowest pilot turnover rates in the country. He believes that's a result of innovative scheduling and crew support initiatives.
Becklund said some pilots find the work more rewarding because they are often directly helping soldiers on the ground in a combat zone.
Crews are on duty for 12 hours and may fly half of the time. Access to the flight center is tightly controlled, but photos provided by the military show a pilot and sensor operator sitting in front of video screens a keyboard and a joystick. They monitor high-tech cameras that provide a level of detail an official calls amazing. They can see in the dark and through clouds and fog.
Becklund said many of the missions are routine reconnaissance, providing video feeds and tracking people. But the aircraft carry two hellfire laser guided missiles and Becklund said it is combat flying.
"It's very fatiguing," Becklund said. "When you sit down in that seat and you're looking at video coming from a combat theater and the people you're talking to are actually there, so when you key the microphone you're talking to those people.
"The images we have are graphic," he said. "You're adrenaline gets up when you get into a combat situation or you help somebody on the ground or you deploy your weapon. It's kind of a thing."
The Fargo flight facility is off limits to anyone without a high security clearance. All the missions are classified, meaning crew members can't talk about what they do at work.
There are about 30, three-person crews staffing the Fargo facility. They are supported by meteorologists, communications specialists and intelligence analysts.
Col. Ricky Gibney is an experienced Predator pilot who's now in a command position. He said there's been a lot of adjusting to the idea of flying airplanes that are on the other side of the world.
"We're kind of treading in new water with the whole mission [and] concept of the split operations with people flying combat missions from 8,000 miles away, or essentially flying combat missions from their home town," Gibney said.
Gibney said the Fargo unit was the first UAV unit to assign a full-time chaplain to the air crews. He said it's not unusual to see pilots or sensor operators talking with the chaplain after a mission.
"You're flying in a war zone, so you do and see and hear things that happen in a war zone," he said. "And those affect people."
When a fighter pilot is sent to a war zone, there's likely several months of preparation, then up to a year-long deployment with their airplane to the combat zone. Wing Commander Robert Becklund said the unmanned aircraft mission turns the concept of going to war upside down.
"Going into combat in the morning, running to Taco Bell for lunch, going back into combat for the afternoon, [and] then running home to make it to the Christmas program at school for your children or whatever," Becklund said, "being able to turn your mind off and on like that is a challenge for us.
"When you're there, in theater, it's easier to focus on the mission because you really can't run home and fix the water heater or make it to the kids' soccer game," he said. "You can't do it because it's physically impossible."
Becklund said the military is studying UAV crews to see how flying combat missions day after day might affect them.
Becklund said the military and intelligence demand for real-time video feeds as insatiable. The Fargo unit is responsible for keeping two aircraft aloft 24-hours-per day, seven days a week.
That mission is likely to grow in the future.