" CAMP TAJI, Iraq--If getting paid to play video games is your ideal job, working in the US Army as a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) pilot might be for you. Of course, this is no game and the only joystick used is to direct the camera on the UAV.
“It would be a great experience,” said Staff Sgt. Erick Ramirez about gamers interested in piloting UAVs. “It's not much difference. Half of our unit are video game freaks.”
Ramirez is a UAV mission controller and veteran UAV pilot. The “Shadow” UAV is used heavily in Iraq for surveillance. They can be heard buzzing around Camp Taji 24 hours a day.
“UAV operations are one of the most rapidly expanding career fields,” said Ramirez. “Right now we are under manned.”
Other UAVs are manually landed and flown. The Shadow is different.
“It's automated take off and landing,” said Staff Sgt. Jared Cornell, a Shadow squad leader. “The system is very good.”
The Shadow is always launched into the wind. It lands nose to the wind as well. The plane looks like a giant remote controlled airplane, and is. For take off, the plane must achieve 60 knots. The propeller is on full throttle while the plane rests on an olive drab slingshot that fires the plane into the air. At 1000 feet, a pilot takes control.
“This platoon has one of the best safety records,” said Sgt 1st Class Charles Walden.
“Even though these guys are UAV pilots, they are held to the same standards as Apache Pilots,” said Walden. They even have to take the same physicals as pilots.
“We used to be an Military Intelligence (MI) asset,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2) Rich Filipone. “But on 19 April,  Aviation embraced us.”
From now on, the UAV pilots will wear Aviator wings on their uniforms. As part of the requirements, UAV pilots attend an FAA certified ground school for 6 months.
A team of three is used for UAV missions. The pilot and camera operator work in a small windowless room, which may be on a trailer or a Humvee. The mission controller usually resides in the TOC. The live video feed is sent to commanders for real time images of selected areas. By radio, internet or phone the operators can be told where to go.
“It's a lot like a flight simulator,” said Cornell. “It's pretty neat. A lot of my guys are computer nerds.”
Cornell said that the Shadows have been catching a lot of bad guys in Iraq planting IEDs or firing mortars.
The Shadow allows commanders to have “eyes on the ground” at all times, day or night.
“What it does for you is expand your battlefield space,” said Filipone. The Shadows can fly for several hours and can be taken over by other operators as they leave the space in one area.
UAVs have been around a long time, said Filipone. Since 1999 in Kosovo the UAVs potential was really noticed by the Army.