A group of Air Force Academy cadets playing the role of Special Operations commandos were repeatedly rescued Thursday during a training mission in the woods north of the cadet area.

Their savior: an eye in the sky the size of a model airplane.

In a distant classroom, another group sat in front of video monitors and watched from the vantage point of a real Scan Eagle drone that buzzed overhead — the same model used in military operations across the globe.

The flight crew shadowed their counterparts on the ground and eliminated “enemies” who stalked them, either by dispatching pretend weapons or requesting close-air support.

“Once that was taken care of, we had to get eyes back on the team and then escort them where they needed to go,” said Daniel Rule, a cadet instructor who helped guide the mission.

The elaborate exercise was all part of the Air Force Academy’s growing effort to prepare cadets for drone warfare — an increasingly vital weapon in the Air Force arsenal and a mainstay in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Scan Eagle — provided through a contract with Insitu, Inc., a Boeing subsidiary — was the same type of aircraft Navy Seals used in their successful bid to free a ship captain held captive by Somali pirates in April 2009.

Last year, the Air Force ordered more drones than fighter jets, and the Air Force Academy became the first service academy in the nation to launch a program to coach cadets in their use.

“Unmanned aircraft are here, and they are the future of the Air Force,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Dave Latham, an experienced pilot who directs the academy’s extracurricular drone program.

The airmanship program began in the summer of 2009, with just 25 cadets. About 90 cadets graduated from the program this summer, and the academy plans to accommodate about 325 cadets by next year.

The actual number of pilot slots available to Air Force Academy graduates is much smaller — but also on the rise.

The academy had just five slots available for drone training last year, and it will have 11 slots available this year, said academy spokesman Meade Warthen.

The drone program is not part of the curriculum at the Air Force Academy, and Latham said its chief purpose is to “inspire” cadets to seek out a career in unmanned aircraft.

That could prove a tough sell at an institution filled with aspiring fighter pilots.

Rule, a junior, is among those who dreams of pulling Gs as an F-15 Eagle pilot.

But after seeing firsthand how effective drones can be in battle, he said he won’t complain if he ends up piloting one.

“For the war that we’re fighting now, you can’t beat this system,” he said. “I might not be going Mach 2 with my hair on fire, but I’ll be saving people’s lives.”

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