Until a few years ago, most of what he knew of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) came from whatever he might have read in magazines like this one. Operating killer drones wasn’t even an option in 2001, when he was accepted to Air Force flight school after graduating from South Dakota State University, because weaponized UAVs didn’t exist. Not that he necessarily would have gone that route. While some of his classmates were bent on flying F-16s, the competitiveness of such a career wasn’t for him. “For a fighter it makes absolute sense, but I’ve never been that aggressive type,” says Brockshus, whose serene brow could fit right alongside the granite faces of Mount Rushmore in his native South Dakota. “I felt more at home with the heavies.” And so it was that he wound up flying KC-135 refueling tankers, like his father.
As his first tanker tour in Mildenhall, England, wound down in 2007, he and his wife were discussing having a second child, and the prospect of another tour didn’t appeal to either of them. One of the problems with flying KC-135s is that the Eisenhower-era fleet is prone to breakdowns, and Brockshus was often diverted to any number of places to wait out repairs. So when the Air Force offered to reassign him to Nevada, Brockshus thought it sounded good.
In the short time since he arrived at Creech, Brockshus, now 30, has become one of the Air Force’s more experienced pilots of one of its most unexpectedly valuable weapons, the MQ-1 Predator. Along with its bigger and deadlier brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, these armed and remotely controlled spy planes have generated what Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz calls an “insatiable” demand among ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention special operations in Pakistan. It’s easy to see why. At this moment, dozens of armed drones circle miles above insurgents, watching everything in real time, with a resolution sharp enough to read a license plate. Every month they stream 18,000 hours of live video to commanders, intelligence officers and ground troops; they track vehicles, scan convoy routes for explosives, and fire missiles. Unlike the F-16, a Predator can remain above a target for 24 hours, while pilots like Brockshus spell each other in shifts, perhaps watching the sun rise over Afghanistan on their video monitors before driving home in the dark. “They give you a capability that you never had,” says retired Air Force Colonel Tom Ehrhard, a leading UAV expert. “And when you couple it with a lethal system, guess what? It’s magic.”
In the end, what lured Brockshus out of the heavies was not the “magic” of bombing targets each day from afar, but being able to tuck his kids in at night. It’s a lifestyle the Air Force hopes will attract new recruits to the job.
In this video, exclusive to PopSci.com, Captain Adam Brockshus narrates a Hellfire missile strike on a group of insurgents in Afghanistan. As a Predator instructor pilot, Brockshus was called into the Ground Control Station to oversee a former student who was taking his first shot in combat. The insurgents gave themselves away when, apparently, they accidentally detonated an IED they were trying to set up. The pilot's instructions were to target the second man in the group. For more on how unmanned air strikes work, step-by-step, see the gallery
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