PALMACHIM AIR BASE, Israel (Reuters) - Service in the drone squadrons of Israel, the world's oldest military operator of pilotless aircraft, sometimes begins on the fields of teenaged model plane enthusiasts.
Veteran air force officers scout new talent among radio-controlled model clubs, a drone commander said Monday during a rare media tour of his unit.
"It's a small world, where everyone knows everyone," said Major Gil, who under censorship regulations could not be identified by surname.
"Those youths who show promise and pass the initial tests are admitted to the course (after their conscription)," he said.
Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the drones that dot the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of U.S.-led operations began as an Israeli idea for improving real-time battlefield intelligence after the 1967 Middle East war.
"We are the first air force that started to use UAVs in an operational way," Gil said.
Israel's drones, like those of a few foreign powers, have since evolved into a sophisticated fleet of long-range surveillance platforms that are ever-present over the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.
At a time of regional upheaval, the drones may be helping Israel watch its porous southern frontier with Egypt, site of an armed infiltration in August that killed eight people. In pursuing the gunmen, Israeli forces killed five Egyptian border troops -- an incident that frayed bilateral relations.
While declining to discuss Egypt specifically, Gil said drones can relay images from within foreign territory while staying in Israel's air space. "It's more than one or two kilometers," he said. "It's enough to provide tactical intelligence. We operate on all Israel's borders, as required."
Independent experts say Israel has also used missile-launching drones against enemy guerrillas, perhaps in areas as far distant as Sudan. Palestinians in Gaza say their overhead buzz is a harbinger of death.
Israel neither confirms nor denies having such a capability. Gil was careful to describe how his drones sometimes mark out targets for "another aircraft" to hit.
Most Israeli drone pilots ended up in the squadrons after failing to pass muster in the prestigious warplane and combat helicopter academies.
But that may be changing. Gil said he went to flight school specifically in order to "fly" a drone, each of which has between two and five operators seated at control consoles on a base like Palmachim, south of Tel Aviv.
In what Gil described as a salute to air force heritage, the drone pilots wear flight overalls and, in his case, a bomber jacket. "It can get cold in that operations room," he joked.
About a decade back, drone pilots complained at not being paid the stipends enjoyed by their jet and helicopter counterparts.
Gil said that issue had been settled, with the military recognizing that while drone pilots face no combat danger and therefore do not deserve hazard pay, their workload is among the heaviest in the air force. Some of the propeller-driven drones can circle for dozens of hours, unlike most other aircraft.
"I'm married with three children, and I hardly ever see them," he said. "I can't tell you how many drones we have, but I can tell you we could definitely use more."
Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Elizabeth Piper