NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - The 26th Weapons Squadron broke new ground during the U.S. Air Forces Weapons School Class 17A, graduating the first advanced instructor course (AIC) for Air Force remotely piloted aircraft sensor operators (RPA SOs).
The new course capitalizes on the world-class training opportunities available at the Weapons School, the diverse experience that students bring with them from their squadrons, and the opportunity to hone their instruction to the expert level. This course ultimately addresses a lack of advanced training in the 1U0X1 RPA SO career field.
In 2009, the Air Force created the 1U0X1 career field to specifically dedicate personnel to RPA SO positions. Before that time, RPA SO jobs were essentially considered special duty assignments, filled by intelligence analysts, sensor operators from gunships, etc., explained Staff Sgt. Derrick Terry, 26th WPS SO AIC noncommissioned officer in charge of the close air support phase.
Terry’s RPA SO training, which mirrors that of many in his community, consisted of aircrew fundamentals at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; the basic SO course at Randolph AFB, Texas; and then the field training unit at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. After completing these courses, he reported to his unit to become combat mission ready.
The RPA SO career field has not yet established a formal 7-level course. Any advanced training is obtained solely on the job. This has concerned many in the RPA SO community because mission sets vary widely, and depending on the assignment, a SO could work in a specialized niche without much exposure to other mission sets. This lack of a wide range of experience ultimately affects the consistency and quality of training across the board.
As Terry’s predecessors came to the Weapons School to support the RPA pilots in the 26th WPS, they saw an opportunity to obtain advanced doctrinal training while expanding their abilities and experience as instructors.
The SO AIC provides that opportunity and has garnered support from the RPA SO community. It allows RPA SOs with vast operational experience to share their knowledge as well as engage in the full spectrum of mission sets with the goal of graduation and having the skills necessary to be “Instructors of Instructors.” Upon completion, graduates will receive a special experience identifier code, which assists the Air Force Personnel Center in making assignments. The SO AIC graduates will also incur a service commitment of three years.
The SO AIC was carefully designed to target the training needed by the SOs while integrating seamlessly the 26th WPS’ primary mission of training MQ-1 and MQ-9 pilots. The SO AIC covers the same five and a half months as the officer weapons instructor course with the sorties for the SOs divided to expose the AIC students to all mission sets, from SAT to integration. The SO AIC students will also have the opportunity to meet leaders and colleagues from around the world.
“We did [temporary duty trips] that were eye-opening for our students,” said Terry.
The target demographic for the SO AIC is the experienced Senior Airmen or young Staff Sergeant.
“We’re after the younger fast burners…Senior Airmen and Staff Sergeants,” said Terry. “Those we can send out who’ll have lasting impact and will continue the legacy the AIC creators worked so hard to obtain.”
Beyond providing well-trained RPA SO experts to the Air Force, the 26th WPS will also continue the Weapons School tradition of building and transforming leaders in the field.
“[The SO AIC] is career broadening for us,” said Terry. “We really took the Weapons School’s ‘humble, approachable, credible’ motto to heart in designing the AIC. We don’t tout this as a leadership course per se, but leadership is a huge side effect of anything we do.”