A Rare Look Inside the Air Force’s Drone Training Classroom

The technology of war is changing, but the fundamental conflict is the same.
A missile is loaded onto a Predator drone during a "weapons loading competition" at Holloman Air Force Base. (Corey Mead)

Learning how to drop bombs and fire Hellfire missiles is more like sitting in a regular college classroom than you might expect. There are hundreds of pages of text to digest, continual testing of knowledge, and nervous, eager students anxious to please their instructors. I know, because I spent a week at the Air Force’s drone pilot training school last year.

We were sitting in a cramped briefing room in the 9th Attack Squadron’s new headquarters at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, across the parking lot from its former, dingier quarters. The furniture was a motley assortment of old and new chairs, tables, and couches that had been scavenged from across the base. Like every building at Holloman, the headquarters was tan, mirroring the surrounding desert landscape. In the briefing room, the walls and ceiling tiles were white; a large whiteboard adorned the south wall. Only a hanging video screen disrupted the color scheme.

Patrick, a senior instructor who spent years piloting drones and engaging in “super secret squirrel stuff” in Afghanistan, led the class. Tall, angular, and pale, with a jutting nose and a wide, quick smile, he was relentlessly energetic, alternately instructing and cajoling the students. “The first thing to think about,” Patrick told the class’ two students—Paul, a pilot, and Justin, a sensor operator—“is the intent of the attack: what does the attack controller, or whoever’s in charge, want to happen on the ground?” The Air Force requested that I use first names only in exchange for weeklong access at Holloman as part of my research for a book on the future of warfare.

And the future, I learned, is like the past: In matters of war, there is tension between what members of the military feel is right and what their work requires. I observed this in the discord between trainers' rhetoric about how much they disliked killing people—they repeated this to me frequently—and their unabashed excitement, also expressed frequently, about the times they were able to launch strikes and kill "bad guys." Hating killing, but enjoying the chance to kill. The competing impulses may have seemed irreconcilable, but they were everywhere.

* * *

About an hour into class, Patrick told his students that different units would allow them different degrees of control over their attacks. “Sometimes you’ll be handcuffed,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Run in from this specific angle, and drop a guided bomb unit on that specific point of impact.’” Other times, he said—and this is more enjoyable—“They’ll go, ‘I want you to kill those guys right there,’ and you’ll get to tailor your options to what makes sense to you.”

“So what makes sense?” Patrick asked Paul and Justin. “If you want to disable a car, or kill the people inside, you might have different aim points, right?”

Paul, a former security forces officer with experience in Afghanistan, was square-jawed and broad-shouldered, a classic linebacker physique, and patchy brown hair. Drone pilots saved his life at least four times in Afghanistan, he said, and he wanted to return the favor. He’d only had a six-day break between his last deployment and drone pilot training school.

Justin had joined the Air Force partly for money—he was in the third year of his bachelor’s degree in business, and already $20,000 in debt. An intelligent perfectionist, he talked proudly of his 4.0 GPA. (You could watch him berate himself in class whenever he made a mistake.) He styled his hair and wore expensive black-frame glasses. 

“To disable the car?” Justin said. “I’d go through the engine.”

“What if we want to kill the passengers inside the car?” Patrick asked.

Paul thought for a moment. “It depends on which person you’re trying to kill,” he replied. “But if it’s all of them, I’d aim for the center mass of the roof.”

Patrick gave an emphatic yes. “And roofs are so small,” he said, “that most people will tell you to go center mass of the roof no matter what. Even if there’s a high value individual in the back left seat, the roof is so small, you want to make sure your sensor hits it. Because if he slips off to the side and he lases glass, what’s going to happen?”

Paul started to answer: “The laser’s gonna be reflected all over the glass and—”

Patrick jumped in. “It ain’t gonna work, right? So if all of your high-value individuals are inside, hit the center mass of the roof and you’re gonna kill everybody in there. The car’s gonna blow up.”

This wasn’t always the goal, he reminded the students. “If you’re just killing one HVI, say if the people get out of the vehicle, make sure you know which one is important. If you don’t have a specific person, go for the biggest group.”

Patrick’s lesson pointed to the less-than-ideal ground intelligence upon which drone pilots sometimes operate. There is an assumption that any individual in “BadGuyLand” (Patrick’s term) is, well, a bad guy, and therefore a potential open target. For all the talk of precision strikes, in other words, war is still war. Next up was a discussion of the weapons at each drone operator’s disposal. “Give me a quick run-down,” Patrick said. “What does a Papa do?”

Paul had his weapons down pat. “A Papa is designed to kill tanks and armored vehicles,” he answered. “So you’re gonna use that on people in the open. It’s better to use it on movers, as well.

“A GBU-12,” Paul continued, unprompted. “is a larger laser-guided bomb. Me, personally, if I can use that, it’s more of a sure thing. So if collateral damage isn’t a factor, I’m gonna use that.”

“So he’s gonna have time to run,” Paul said.

Patrick moved on to the Hellfire missile, the weapon of choice against people who are moving in the open. He directed his first question to Paul: “If you’re shooting a person walking around,” he asked, how should you go about it?

Paul took a moment to think. “Do I have time constraints on the shot?”

Patrick was dismissive. “There’s always a time constraint,” he said.

Paul adopted a firmer tone. “I’d probably try to shoot more towards the front,” he said, “because if I’m shooting off to the side, the missile might end up hitting behind him or off to the side, and not actually kill him.”

“Absolutely,” Patrick said, his impatience gone. “Placement matters a lot.”

“What’s the other one big factor?” the instructor prodded.

“The sonic boom time,” Paul answered.

Yes,” Patrick said, with even more enthusiasm than usual.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator drone armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. (REUTERS/U.S. Air Force)

This was one of his favorite topics as an instructor. An understanding of sonic boom time is, he said, what separates mediocre drone pilots from skilled ones. “If I shoot 90 degrees off azimuth, what’s my sonic boom time going to be?” (Azimuth refers to the angle between an object and a point of reference. In other words, it's the angle at which the pilot aims the laser that guides the bomb or missile to the target he wants to hit.)

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Presented by

​Corey Mead

Corey Mead is the author of War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict. He is an assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York.

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