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The EPIC return of the ‘Flying Sergeants’

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – RANDOLPH, TEXAS --

In November 2016, two Air Force master sergeants became the first enlisted Airmen in more than six decades to fly and complete their own solo flights in a Diamond DA-20 Katana, which is a requirement for all manned aircraft pilots, combat system officers and remotely piloted aircraft pilots undertaking the U.S. Air Force’s Initial Flight Training Program.

About a year before their first flights, the Air Force officially announced the return of active duty enlisted pilots.

The initiative to integrate enlisted Airmen into flying operations of the RQ-4 Global Hawk is part of a broader effort to meet the continual RPA demands of combatant commanders in the field, then Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced in a release signaling the creation of the enlisted RPA pilot program.

The Air Force selected 12 active-duty Airmen for the first Enlisted Pilot Initial Class, otherwise known as the EPIC selectees – the first enlisted Airmen to fly aircraft for the Air Force since 1942. These enlisted Airmen train on the same RPA syllabi as commissioned officers and are side-by-side with officer students in the classroom. The entire training program spans about a year in Air Education and Training Command, beginning at IFT in Pueblo, Colo. with the 1st Flying Training Squadron, and ending with the 558th Flying Training Squadron, both squadrons falling under the 12th Flying Training Wing at JBSA-Randolph.

But enlisted Airmen flying aircraft is certainly not unprecedented. Beginning in 1912, enlisted pilots played an important role in writing aviation history and setting the course for today’s modern Air Force. They would later play an instrumental role in World War II.

In Lee Arbon's book about enlisted pilots, "They Also Flew," Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Fisk compared pilots to precious stones, with the shiniest of all U.S. aviation achievements being those of the sergeant pilot.

An enlisted man's opportunity to train to fly was many times luck of the draw, Arbon said. Such was the case in 1912 for Cpl. Vernon Burge, the first enlisted pilot, who was a mechanic accepted into pilot training.

Allowing enlisted Airmen to earn their wings as pilots was a temporary response to drastic shortages of qualified pilot candidates during wartime. Two Congressional laws authorized the training: the Air Corps Act of 1926 and Public Law 99, which went into effect in 1941. Public Law 99 reduced the education requirement, making the average age of the sergeant pilot between 18 and 22, younger than most pilot training cadets with a college education.

Enlisted pilot training in the late 1920s initially was informal, practical in nature and not a product of the flying schools, which developed later in the early 1940s with World War II enlisted pilots, according to Arbon.

Instead, Arbon said, “If fortunate enough, these early, World War I enlisted pilots grew up in the local organization learning under a generous officer in their unit. For the initial enlisted pilots, the World War I generation, many came out of the ranks of mechanics to become successful pilots.”

Enlisted pilots would continue to serve in World War II, products of systemized flying schools. Arbon who attended pilot training in 1942, recalled, “Training conditions were fiercely competitive, attrition was very high, half of us were cut after the medical physical, and only one fourth made it out of training.”

These World War II enlisted pilots would later be dubbed the “flying sergeants” for the staff sergeant rank they received upon graduation from flight training irrespective of their previous rank. Enlisted men seized this once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Wenglar, a former enlisted pilot.

“I was born the tenth child of a sharecropper and, at that time, there was no one lower than a sharecropper,” Wenglar said. “I went from driving a mule to flying the newest (aircraft). It was quite a step. We never thought about whether we wanted to be an enlisted pilot or an officer pilot. We just wanted to be pilots, and we would gladly have stayed privates forever just to have the chance to fly.”

Wenglar, who served overseas during World War II from November 1942 through July 1944, holds the distinction of achieving the highest rank of any former enlisted pilot.

Enlisted pilot candidates trained six days a week in class or in the air and spent Sundays doing drill, Wenglar said. One of his strongest memories was training in the hot July sunshine in Arizona with temperatures in the hundreds, which made the flight line surface even hotter.

“While waiting your turn to fly, the instructors would order us to complete one push-up after another, our hands burning,” he said. “When we couldn't do any more push-ups, the instructors would make us (get on our backs and) hold our feet up six inches from the ground. Looking back, it's amazing we got through. They worked hard to wash us out, especially considering they needed us so badly.”

According to Wenglar, enlisted pilots flew in 22 campaigns from the Mexican-American War to World War II.

“Name a combat plane or theater and you'll find a number of sergeant pilots in each of those units,” Arbon said. “We did everything. It took us a long time to acquaint the world to the fact that we did indeed exist. When we did get acknowledged, people realized we had done a grand job.”

The Air Force’s first enlisted pilots were high achievers, dedicated to their country.

“Our careers as enlisted pilots made us better men and gave us opportunities later in the civilian world that we never would have been offered," Wenglar said. "Many of us went on to become airline pilots, doctors and educators. We destroyed a total of 249.5 enemy planes, and five out of seven men in charge of air transport systems went on to become commanders of troop carriers in Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East.”

Walter Beech, co-founder of Beech Aircraft Corporation, was one of the early enlisted pilots who achieved notoriety. He was a World War I pilot and became a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Bob Hoover, a World War II pilot, is also listed in the Aviation Hall of Fame and is considered one of the great test pilots of all time.

Ralph Bottriell earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work with parachutes. Two enlisted pilots, Ira Biffle and Bill Winston, taught Charles Lindbergh.

During World War II, 30 staff sergeant pilots flew transport missions in the China-Burma-India Theater, delivering supplies and people over the treacherous Himalaya Mountains better known as the "Hump."

The opportunity for enlisted men to become pilots ended in late 1942 with the Flight Officer Act. This law replaced the program's sergeant pilot rank with the warrant officer rank, which no longer exists. Retired Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, famous for breaking the sound barrier, was in the last class of the enlisted pilot program for sergeant pilots. The following year, all sergeant pilots received orders to be promoted to the new "flight officer" rank.

Following World War II, George Holmes chose to revert to his former rank of master sergeant and served as the Air Force's last enlisted pilot until his retirement in 1957, according to U.S. Air Force Museum officials.

More than 50 years later, a monument stands at Gunter Air Force Base Annex, Ala., honoring the legacy and heritage of the Air Force’s first and once only enlisted pilots. The Enlisted Pilots of the Air Force Monument was unveiled in 2014, located outside the Enlisted Heritage Hall and Research Institute, which preserves and commemorates the stories of enlisted Airmen.

“They were men, who during a time of crisis, did not shrink from service to our country, and instead they courageously fought to defend and aid those around them,” said Gen. Robin Rand, then commander of Air Education and Training Command, during the 2014 ceremony dedicating the monument. “Quite simply, our enlisted pilots were the very best our country had to offer.”

Of the 3,000 enlisted sergeant pilots, 11 of them would go on to achieve the rank of general officer, 17 would become flying aces and more than 150 were killed in action.

The legacy of the “flying sergeants” and the first pioneering enlisted aviators will continue on with today’s enlisted pilots flying the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Enlisted RPA pilots will provide worldwide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to meet the demands of combatant commanders, doing what is necessary to defend the nation as their enlisted forebears who flew before them.

The first EPIC selectees are slated to graduate from Undergraduate RPA Pilot Training in May 2017, with three EPIC classes following. Graduates then head over to their RQ-4 Formal Training Unit at Beale AFB, Calif.

The first enlisted RPA pilot selection board met at the Air Force Personnel Center, Feb. 6-9, to identify the next enlisted group that will enter the training pipeline, separate from the EPIC program. A decision from the board is expected at the end of February with the first enlisted selected to begin training in April.

Airmen interested in the RQ-4 Global Hawk RPA program can complete eligibility requirements and application procedures on myPers. From the dropdown menu, select “Active Duty AF Enlisted” and search “enlisted RPA.”

Editor’s note: Retired Brig. Gen. Edward Wenglar, quoted throughout this story, died Aug. 5, 2011. After retiring from the Air Force in 1983, he moved to his farm in Francitas, Texas and lived there with his wife until his death.