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EPIC accomplishment for Air Force’s newest pilots

(From Left to Right) U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex, Master Sgt. Mike and Tech. Sgt. Mike, Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students, stand together after graduation from the 558th Flying Training Squadron's Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course May 5, 2017, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.  The three Airmen are the first enlisted personnel to graduate from the course, making them the service's first enlisted pilots since 1961.
(U.S. Air Force Photo by Melissa Peterson)

(From Left to Right) U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex, Master Sgt. Mike and Tech. Sgt. Mike, Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students, stand together after graduation from the 558th Flying Training Squadron's Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course May 5, 2017, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. The three Airmen are the first enlisted personnel to graduate from the course, making them the service's first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Melissa Peterson)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex, Enlisted Pilot Initial Class student, has his wings pinned on during graduation from the 558th Flying Training Squadron's Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course May 5, 2017, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.  Alex is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him one of the service’s first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Melissa Peterson)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex, Enlisted Pilot Initial Class student, has his wings pinned on during graduation from the 558th Flying Training Squadron's Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course May 5, 2017, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. Alex is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him one of the service’s first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Melissa Peterson)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mike, Enlisted Pilot Initial Class student, operates the controls of a T-6 Texan II aircraft simulator, May 4, 2017 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Mike is assigned to Undergraduate Remotely Piloted Training Class 17-10 with the 558th Flying Training Squadron, and is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him on of the service’s first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joel Martinez)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mike, Enlisted Pilot Initial Class student, operates the controls of a T-6 Texan II aircraft simulator, May 4, 2017 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Mike is assigned to Undergraduate Remotely Piloted Training Class 17-10 with the 558th Flying Training Squadron, and is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him on of the service’s first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joel Martinez)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex, one of the first Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students, teams up with Lt. Col. Aaron, 558th Flying Training Squadron Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamental Course director, during a simulator flight at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 4, 2017. Alex is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him on of the service's first enlisted pilots since 1961.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Joel Martinez)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alex, one of the first Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students, teams up with Lt. Col. Aaron, 558th Flying Training Squadron Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamental Course director, during a simulator flight at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 4, 2017. Alex is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him on of the service's first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joel Martinez)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike, one of the first Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students, operates flight controls of a T-6 Texan II simulator during the 558th Flying Training Squadron’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 4, 2017. Mike is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him one of the service's first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joel Martinez)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike, one of the first Enlisted Pilot Initial Class students, operates flight controls of a T-6 Texan II simulator during the 558th Flying Training Squadron’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 4, 2017. Mike is one of the first three enlisted Airmen to graduate from the course, making him one of the service's first enlisted pilots since 1961. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joel Martinez)

An RQ-4 Global Hawk soars through the sky to record intelligence, surveillence and reconnaissance data. Air Force and Navy officials met to discuss joint training with the RQ-4. (Courtesy photo)

An RQ-4 Global Hawk soars through the sky to record intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. (Courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --

The first three enlisted members graduated the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft training program here today, making them the service’s first enlisted pilots since 1961.

Today’s graduation is the most significant milestone in a bold initiative announced Dec. 17, 2015, to find high-quality enlisted Airmen to train as RPA pilots for RQ-4 Global Hawk flying operations. The three enlisted pilots, Master Sgt. Mike, Master Sgt. Alex and Tech. Sgt. Mike, are now bound for advanced RQ-4 training at Beale Air Force Base, California.

The program, called Enlisted Pilot Initial Class, or EPIC, required the enlisted pilot candidates to train side-by-side with their officer RPA counterparts during the entire pipeline. Before training here, the three noncommissioned officers began with Initial Flight Training (IFT) in Pueblo, Colorado, in November 2016. There, they completed multiple solo flights in a DA-20 Katana aircraft, just like all other Air Force pilots, RPA pilots, and combat systems officers are required to do.

The second and third phases of training, RPA Instrument Qualification and RPA Fundamentals Courses, brought the class of 20 students to the 558th Flying Training Squadron at JBSA-Randolph. The entire training program spans almost a full year.

"The program so far has been a success,” said Lt. Col. Jason Thompson, 558th FTS commander. “From a training standpoint, there is no difference [between officers and enlisted]. We put them through the exact same training pipeline. When they arrive at their duty locations, they will be side-by-side with their officer pilot counterparts doing the exact same mission for the combatant commanders downrange.”

In its 70 years as a separate service, the Air Force has relied almost exclusively on commissioned officers for its pilots. In fact, there have been no Air Force enlisted pilots at all since back when John F. Kennedy first took office.

  Master Sgt. Mike, who was the first EPIC student to solo at IFT and is one of his class’ two distinguished graduate honorees, is confident that fellow enlisted Airmen can succeed.

“It is nice to be a part of something new and groundbreaking for the enlisted force and for the Air Force in general,” said Master Sgt. Mike, a 17-year veteran. “This is all for the betterment of the Air Force. This just proves the enlisted force can step up and handle any responsibility. But at the end of the day it’s not about rank, but about how you handle yourself in various situations.”

His fellow enlisted pilots shared the same sentiment.

“To be one of the first enlisted pilots since WWII and to be on the front side of a new career for the Air Force is very humbling,” said Technical Sgt. Mike. “The enlisted career field is always expanding and this is going to open up many doors for enlisted Airmen and, hopefully, change the culture and improve upon the direction we are already going.”

Reflecting on their groundbreaking efforts, Master Sgt. Alex said, “This is such an honor, I never thought I would be doing something of this magnitude in my military career. The feeling of being able to be the leader in an operational mission is pretty awesome.”

The Air Force is now in full swing filling the RQ-4 RPA training pipeline with enlisted Airmen. In addition to the original 12 EPIC Airmen chosen in 2015, 30 more enlisted Airmen were chosen in March from a pool of 185 applicants to fill fiscal year 2017 and 2018 training slots, as part of a deliberate approach to enhance the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. The Air Force plans to grow its enlisted RPA pilot force to more than 100 over the next four years.

“We are going to continue to bring enlisted pilots through our training programs,” said Thompson. “The future enlisted students have been selected right alongside their officer counterparts and they are going to continue working exceptionally hard, as did the first three EPIC students. I only see success in the future in our ability to provide pilots for the RPA community."

(Editor’s note: Only first names of the pilots were given because the Air Force limits disclosure of identifying information to first names for all RPA pilots and sensor operators throughout their careers.)