Editor’s 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 I’ve ever had the privilege to work with," Plecenik said. "At the end of the day, I don’t want to lose him out of my office and squadron. I don’t 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, he’s 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.