Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada - Inside a plain beige trailer, a pair of aviators stare intently at a bank of computer screens. Air conditioners hum loudly in the background.
The sensor operator zooms in on an object on the ground more than 14,000 feet below. The pilot moves a joystick, turning a drone that's miles away and flying at a sluggish 120 mph over the Nevada desert as part of an exercise to find a downed pilot.
"It's an odd shape, but I don't see any movement," the drone pilot says before pushing the joystick and moving on. Air Force policy prohibits identifying drone pilots by name.
It's not like strapping into an F-16 and exceeding the speed of sound, but drones like these are overshadowing fighters and bombers that for decades have been the mainstay of America's unchallenged air superiority.
The rise of drone warfare has meant a dramatic cultural shift for the Air Force, whose leadership has for decades been dominated by officers who made their mark flying combat aircraft.
Nellis Air Force Base is the home of the Air Force's elite Top Gun school for fighter pilots. Drone pilots share space here and have their own tactics course.
The drones fly from small trailers not far from a flight line where fighter jets regularly roar down the runway and climb sharply over mountains surrounding the base.
Drones were initially dismissed by many pilots as nothing more than video games, and it took prodding from the Pentagon before the Air Force embraced the aircraft. Today, the Air Force pins more wings on new drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots.
The smallish aircraft, fitted with powerful cameras for surveillance and sometimes missiles for airstrikes, play a critical role in Afghanistan. They provide 24/7 surveillance of the battlefield and have the ability to hit precise targets.
The Air Force has embraced drone pilots without reservations. The drone pilots get nicknames, or call signs, and stride the halls of the Air Force Weapons School in flight suits like any other pilots.
It's important symbolism, officers say.
"They're 100% accepted and integrated," says Air Force Lt. Col. Cedric Stark, a helicopter pilot and squadron commander at Nellis.
Air Force officers blanch at using the word drone, which they say suggests it is a dumb aircraft that flies itself. The accepted term is remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA. The message is that pilots control the aircraft, even if from a remote location.
"We don't just give call signs to any guy who walks in the door," says Lt. Col. Joseph Campo, head of the RPA program at the Weapons School.
Some pilots say the Air Force embraces the drones at the expense of manned aircraft.
"I guarantee you there is not a fighter pilot around who wants to fly a drone," says Dan Hampton, a former Air Force officer who has written a memoir about his exploits as a fighter pilot. "I don't want to orbit over a point for 12 hours and take pictures."
J.D. Wyneken, director of the American Fighter Aces Association, says the older generation of pilots view drone operators as less than true pilots.
In the view of many aces, "just the very idea of a pilotless aircraft is dishonorable," Wyneken says.
To be an ace, a pilot has to shoot down five or more aircraft during an aerial duel. There are about 300 surviving aces in the USA. They could be the last.
"We may be on verge of building our last manned fighter," said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general and former fighter pilot who is director of Deloitte, a consulting firm.
Few officers deny that drones are essential to the wars the United States fights. Drone strikes against al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere have killed scores of terrorists, according to the Obama administration, which has ramped up drone operations.
Drones were used extensively in Iraq and in Afghanistan. They can loiter for hours over a target, transmitting vital video surveillance to troops on the ground.
"There is a demand for ISR that is almost insatiable," Stark says, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance supplied by drones.
Because of increased drone usage, the Air Force has boosted the number of drone pilots. They make up 8.5% of Air Force pilots, up from 3.3% in 2008, according to the Air Force.
Drones were initially required to be operated by fighter, bomber and other pilots, but two years ago the service created a separate training pipeline designed specifically for training drone pilots. They get only limited training in manned aircraft before learning how to pilot an RPA.
The younger generation of officers is attracted to drones, seeing them as the future. Last year, drones flew more combat hours than manned aircraft.
"The truth of the matter is remotely piloted aircraft are carrying the vast majority of the workloads in terms of kinetic operations," says Lt. Col. John McCurdy, director of the RPA program at the Air Force Academy. He said he has seen a steady increase in the number of students interested in the program.
Even some pilots of manned aircraft are having second thoughts.
About 25% of the 244 pilots who were ordered to fly drones after basic flight training have indicated they want to stay with the remotely piloted aircraft instead of returning to manned aircraft, the Air Force says.
"I've talked to people who transferred over who said they like the RPA platform because they are finally getting a chance to engage the enemy," says Air Force Col. Kent McDonald, a flight surgeon who has studied the effects of stress on drone pilots.
Officers say the drone pilots have the drive and aggressiveness of fighter jocks but not the swagger. Col. Robert Garland, commander of the Air Force Weapons School, which teaches pilots from a number of aircraft, including RPAs, says he emphasizes being "humble and approachable."
Many officers don't miss the old swagger.
"You shouldn't necessarily associate brash and cockiness with courage or ... performance," Wald says. "It was kind of fun to be that way, but that doesn't necessarily mean you were the best at anything."
The pilots coming into the drone program have grown up with computers and video games. Drone pilots sit in ground stations that resemble a cross between a cockpit and a video game. There are computer monitors, video screens and joysticks for controlling the aircraft and camera. The pilots often communicate through texting.
"This cockpit is built for this generation of multitaskers," says Col. Bill Tart, director of the Air Force's RPA Task Force.
The demand for surveillance from ground forces has placed a lot of pressure on RPA pilots, sensor operators and analysts.
"The RPA platform can be much more stressful ... in terms of just the amount of information that they have to consistently be aware of," says Wayne Chappelle at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Pilots say it can't be compared to the stress they feel when a missile heads toward their aircraft or when they are making violent turns in a dogfight. Fighter pilots can be killed in action, or taken prisoner if they have to bail out of a damaged aircraft. Not so drone pilots.
"It's as stressful as any tedious job," says John Hope, executive director of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association. "When you tell a guy who flew an F-105 over Vietnam that this guy is stressed out, he doesn't see it."
The Air Force does not award valor medals for flying drones, but the service is considering issuing special awards for RPA missions. Officers insist that flying RPAs is real combat - not a video game.
RPA pilots say they face a unique stress because they see the enemy in a more personal way than a pilot flying at 500 mph. Drone pilots may watch a target for days, seeing him interact with his family and go about the routine of his daily life, before launching a missile to kill him.
Afterward, an RPA pilot may watch the funeral for the target, Tart says.
"This is not a video game at all," he says.
Some analysts worry that the Air Force's rush to incorporate drones may leave the country vulnerable in the future if the United States squares off against an enemy with a sophisticated air defense system.
Slow-moving drones cannot defend themselves against missiles and other attacks. That hasn't been a problem in Iraq or Afghanistan, where the United States enjoys nearly unrivaled air superiority. But if the United States has to penetrate sophisticated air defenses, it will need fighter pilots in manned aircraft.
"How would a drone handle a dogfight?" Hampton says.