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Team Travis sergeant earns RPA pilot wings

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, mans the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, mans the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, conducts a preflight inspection of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, in Rio Vista, California, prior to a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, conducts a preflight inspection of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, in Rio Vista, California, prior to a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, conducts a preflight inspection of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, in Rio Vista, California, prior to a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, conducts a preflight inspection of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, in Rio Vista, California, prior to a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, mans the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, mans the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, stands in front of a C-17 Globemaster III July 23, 2019, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Ron completed remote pilot aircraft training July 12 and is one of the few enlisted Airmen the Air Force selected to serve as pilots. Prior to being selected to become a pilot, Ron served as a C-17 flying crew chief. This photo has been altered for security purposes by blurring out the last name on the uniform. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, stands in front of a C-17 Globemaster III July 23, 2019, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Ron completed remote pilot aircraft training July 12 and is one of the few enlisted Airmen the Air Force selected to serve as pilots. Prior to being selected to become a pilot, Ron served as a C-17 flying crew chief. This photo has been altered for security purposes by blurring out the last name on the uniform. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, makes an adjustment at the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, makes an adjustment at the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

The Golden Gate Bridge is visible from a Socata Trinidad TB-20 aircraft July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. The plane was piloted by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

The Golden Gate Bridge is visible from a Socata Trinidad TB-20 aircraft July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. The plane was piloted by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, mans the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, mans the controls of a Socata Trinidad TB-20 July 27, 2019, during a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, prepares to land a Socata Trinidad TB-20 aircraft July 27, 2019, in Rio Vista, California, after a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, prepares to land a Socata Trinidad TB-20 aircraft July 27, 2019, in Rio Vista, California, after a flight over the San Francisco Bay Area. Ron has accumulated more than 250 flying hours and completed Air Force remote pilot aircraft training July 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, stands in front of a C-141B Starlifter known as the “Golden Bear” July 23, 2019, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Ron completed remote pilot aircraft training July 12 and is one of the few enlisted Airmen the Air Force selected to serve as pilots. This photo has been altered for security purposes by blurring out the last name on the uniform. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)
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U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, stands in front of a C-141B Starlifter known as the “Golden Bear” July 23, 2019, at Travis Air Force Base, California. Ron completed remote pilot aircraft training July 12 and is one of the few enlisted Airmen the Air Force selected to serve as pilots. This photo has been altered for security purposes by blurring out the last name on the uniform. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman)

Editors Note: Surnames were withheld to comply with Air Force guidelines on the disclosure of identifying information for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance personnel.

  

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. When a Team Travis noncommissioned officer showed up five months into a six-month course at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, to become an Enlisted Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilot, there was confusion.

 

First, Tech. Sgt. Ron, 860th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flight line expediter, was incorrectly sorted into the wrong course, a mistake which became clear when a staff member asked why he wanted to be a sensor operator.

Once he did get to the correct class, further confusion came from his fellow classmates, who were surprised to see Ron join their ranks so late. He was able to skip much of the course because he already had his private pilot's license and instrument rating.

"It was kind of weird showing up at Randolph in June and these guys have been together for the past five months, from the very beginning," he said. "So I show up in the last month, like, 'Who's this guy?'"

To answer that, it's important to wind the clock back.

 

Years before earning his RPA pilot wings in July, Ron was raised on Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It's less than 50 square miles.

 

"It's a dot on a map," Ron said. "You can't even see it on a map. You have to look hard."

 

Ron joined the Air Force in July 2009 and arrived at Travis AFB in 2010. His time fixing C-17 Globemaster IIIs as a maintainer sparked an interest in aviation, so he began taking flying lessons at the base's aero club in nearby Rio Vista. 

 

"I grew up at that aero club, from zero hours to where I'm at right now, they taught me how to fly," he said. 

 

Although he began the RPA course with the lessons learned through the aero club, Ron said he feels pressure to succeed so that the opportunity remains open for other enlisted Airmen to follow in his footsteps.

 

"If I messed up, it would mess it up for future guys coming up," he said. "What matters is aptitude, intellect and work ethic."

 

Ron said the job brings a different sort of pressure than his role in maintenance. While the former was more overtly physically demanding, his new role will ask a lot psychologically.

 

"People say it's like a video game. It's not like a video game," he said. "Imagine you're flying a plane with the normal stuff you have to do. You're already multi-tasking when you're flying, right? You've got the controls, you're on the radio. So imagine all of that plus having a laptop on your lap, and you're typing away, and you're talking on your cell phone and you have an iPad."

 

It's a big change from maintenance, where Ron went on five deployments. He's "somewhat of a legend" in the 860th AMXS, according to Master Sgt. Rick Plecenik, the squadron's lead production superintendent.

 

"He's been an absolute, complete rock star, one of the best Airmen Ive ever had the privilege to work with," Plecenik said. "At the end of the day, I dont want to lose him out of my office and squadron. I dont want to lose that level of expertise in maintenance. But, if the Air Force has this opportunity and it's what he wants to do, hes earned it."

 

It's been a long journey for Ron, from his youth on Saipan all the way to joining an emerging career field as an enlisted RPA pilot.

 

"I used to work at a hotel doing a Polynesian dinner show, playing the ukulele and drumming for tourists, so from that to RPA pilot is crazy," he said.