DES MOINES, Iowa -- Before the F-16 program was officially grounded in 2012 fighter pilots took to the skies over the Middle East. They still fly over combat zones, but now do it from Des Moines International Airport.
Former F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Bolt, who goes by his callsign for security reasons, now pilots an MQ-9 Reaper Drone for the Iowa Air National Guard’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Program.
The aircraft is capable of flying more than one thousand miles in a single mission, is armed with up to four Hellfire missiles, and equipped with state of the art cameras and thermal imaging.
Bolt is a commander in the program, and his team of pilots fly daily missions, totaling between 130 and 150 hours a week. Bolt says the program has opened up more opportunities than just flying.
“We've got the pilots flying the airplane, we have sensor operators who control the camera that`s looking at whatever we need to see, we've got mission intel coordinators who are intelligence specialists,” said Bolt.
The pilots and their team have found that operating an aircraft fitted for both combat and reconnaissance has allowed them to do things that an F-16 wouldn’t let them do, like watching over a group of exhausted soldiers.
“They slept for eight hours, and this team woke up one of the guys got back on the radio and he just said thanks. That was the best thing you could have done for us,” said Bolt.
The program has proven to be a difference maker for the military. Drone surveillance played a role in the raid on Osama Bin Laden in 2011. However it has faced criticism for causing too much collateral damage, something pilots work hard to avoid.
“And really it’s that 99 percent of the gathering of information. We use all that time and all that footage to ensure we know who all the people are, what’s going on, making sure that we’re safe from any friendly forces being involved in the strikes, and obviously civilian casualties,” said Bolt.
Becoming a drone pilot involves months of training, but it’s a job that is increasingly appealing to today's generation.
“All the students and young kids these days are always on their phone and always using computers, so it`s incredible to reach out to them that way into something they are interested in,” said Staff Sgt. Anna Rietveld.
That interest and the battle pilots are fighting here on the home front, is preventing the fight from coming home.
"Our ultimate mission, I think, is to prevent more terrorist attacks for us here in the United States ... if we can engage those terrorists and the enemy in other locations we are much more successful preventing those future attacks” said Bolt.