Marine Aviator Of The Year A Drone Pilot


The Marine Corps’ top pilot for 2024 never leaves the ground. For the first time, a drone pilot, Maj. Shane Gentry, has been named the Corps’ Marine Aviator of the Year. He was also named recipient of the Alfred A. Cunningham Award by the Marine Corp Aviation Association. Gentry is a member of the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 and has flown the RQ-21, RQ-7 B and MQ-9A. “It’s a great honor, it’s humbling—absolutely pioneering for the Marine Corps unmanned community,” he told USNI News.

Gentry said he chose drones after graduation 10 years ago because they were the “most deployed” units. He said since he began, drones have become increasingly important to operations of all kinds. “We’re not coming to take like manned aviation jobs,” he said. “If anything, we’re enhancing lethality of the aviation enterprise. We’re enhancing survivability of the manned aircraft, we’re enhancing their roles and duties in aviation. So we are an enhancing aspect of Marine Corps aviation.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Seems to me that mixing drone pilots with ‘real’ pilots in consideration for such a prestigious award is not a good idea. While both are ‘aviation’ related and their missions are important, there’s a big difference between them. This young man isn’t risking his life sitting in a real cockpit flying a F-35 from the deck of a ship at night in stormy weather. He might fall out of his chair but that’s it 🙂 . I don’t know how the USMC organizes its drone ops but in the USAF, many times a drone pilot is on the other side of the world going home at night. There ought to be two awards; his wings reflect the distinction that he’s a drone pilot vs ‘real’ pilot so … why not have two awards? I’m sure I’ll be attacked for this position but … so be it.

    • No argument here. I agree completely that there should be two aviation awards with a clear distinction between outstanding manned and outstanding unmanned accomplishments. The two categories do not represent equal skill sets and cannot be objectively evaluated against one another from a physical or mental standpoint.

    • Your comment shows a complete lack of knowledge about how Marines train, deploy, and fight. VMU Marines deploy and “go to the dirt” to support their ground combat counterparts regularly. They train to remain proficient with basic infantry tactics and weapons and are expected to defend themselves if attacked.

    • If you think drone pilots are not in the thick of combat, please observe what is happening in Ukraine, where it seems that most of the Ukrainian drone pilots are up near the front using short range, but very effective drones. The issue is situational. I don’t know how the Marine Corps or the US Army deploy their drone pilots, but I will bet that not all of their drone pilots are 1000’s of miles away from the front lines (there may also be USAF drone pilots who are much closer to the hostilities than the ones who are in the US).

  2. The drone pilots do most of our war fighting in today’s environment saving the fighter pilots having to do some of the high threat missions. When I did 4 short tours in Nam, I had to dodge over 100 Sam’s and lots of AAA. I would had preferred that a drone handled some of those targets. The drone pilots have unique stresses because of the nature of their job and we need to honor them as any war fighter because they do a great job and they are the future.

  3. Considering that “flying” a modern fighter like the F-35 is little more than systems management, this isn’t really surprising.

    • So Jonathon … are you now or were you ever a military pilot? Have you personally flown an F-35? Have you ever worn a military uniform. Unless you answer in the affirmative to all three … you’re just jacking your jaws and don’t know what you’re talking about. The simple act of pulling up to 9 G’s in a military fighter is work in and as of itself. I’ve done it. Running the systems at the same time, applying tactings and procedures while avoiding being boinked yourself is some more. Frankly, sir, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about

  4. Whether it is drones you fly or the real airplane, regardless of skill needed to fly either, for those pilots one thing is common. They’ve both committed themselves to the willingness to deploy very lethal weapons that will knowingly kill people on the ground. That’s the very tough bottom line for all of these warriors to willingly accept and then live with. A very necessary mission requirement though.

      • I am not sure what your point is here, but all the pilots may refuse an illegal order. Furthermore, I think you are pretty much on the wrong side of the pendulum here. We currently take too many precautions when our soldiers and airmen are in harms way, IMO.

  5. At least drone pilots can have a shot or two or three of whiskey and not deplete their oxygen to get sober on the trip to the target. And why is he in a nomex flight suit? The air force uses 10 – 13 year olds for drone pilots but the attrition is great especially when a Marine drone accidentally runs into one. “General, drone pilot #2 is crying because he was mid-air’d by a Marine drone”. And why does the air force wear BDU’s? They should at least be pink BDU’s.

    • As a retired USAF senior enlisted type, I tend to agree. It has ALWAYS bothered me that officers who aren’t flying are prancing around in nomex zoom bags pretending to be Steve Canyon when it isn’t needed. You may not be aware that the USAF — FINALLY — started training enlisted drone pilots. They must go through the same primary training but then move over to the unmanned systems. The USAF did this to enable using the pilots they detailed to drones to go back to real airplanes. But saying USAF types should wear “pink” BDU’s is taking it a bit far. I’m sure there are many corps types that love the USAF when they show up to save the day in their handy dandy A-10’s w 30mm a blazing. 🙂

  6. Great news that technology has advanced far enough to remove existential threat from our operators. Congratulations to Major Gentry for the award. Looking forward to this type of technology for law enforcement. It’s ridiculous that 118 cops have died in the line of duty thus far in 2024 while we fight wars virtually 12,000 miles away. I’m advocating for the use of drones to serve “no knock” warrants, so don’t go down that road. Thx.

    • While some no knock warrants are issued to prevent loss of evidence, I think most are now issued to prevent bloodshed, and it’s too often leading to civilian casualties. If sending in a robot can actually prevent bloodshed, then that’s great.

    • Never lose sight of the fact that Marine aviation is a sub-set of Naval aviation.

      Marines don’t own any airplanes. All owned by the US Navy.

      As a former squid I never let the marines forget this.

      • As a former Marine, I never let “docs’ forget they were the only “squids” you ever see up front with the fighting Marines. (SEALS different.) Thanks for getting us to the fight and still getting hot meals, bunks, etc.

        • As one of God’s Marines, a “Doc” and pilot I would like to thank all the nice squids for driving us to work, servicing our planes clean and making the coffee.

  7. I lived in Vegas when a bunch of the AF drone “pilots” were stationed at Creech. They would bomb brown people by day, play poker on the Strip by night. What a world!

    • One tidbit. Apparently the bulk of the mission would be flown by a Raytheon employee making 10x what the AF “pilot” was. Then, because rules of engagement are very important, the Raytheon guy would hand over the controls to the AF guy for the moment of blowing people up on the ground. When that was done, the Raytheon guy took over again. It’s very expensive equipment, you see.

    • The brown people were killing American’s. Kill them no matter what color. I’m all good with that.

      As a former Marine and pilot, I understand some folks saying it’s not the same as an aviator. Maybe two awards, remote pilot award and pilot flying aircraft award.

      And BTW to you naysayers. Drones have been around since WW1, really took off in WW2, and Vietnam was the real eye opening. Yep, AA and AA Missiles. For all intents those are drones and they’re killing other machines. North Vietnam couldn’t dog fight and shoot 10% of what they knocked out of the sky by missles and AA. Unmanned AA and Missiles, AKA Drones.

  8. Just curious, how many of you with negative comments have strapped on the uniform and served??

    • THAT is precisely MY position on folks who flap their jaws as if they’re an expurt when they never served one day of military service. No matter what one did, they wrote a “blank check” for their life so they ARE “more equal.” I began MY service during Viet Nam … earning $90 / month. I often say that people were dying for that kind of money at that time. SO — yeah — anyone who served IS more equal! Period!

    • Well, I cannot speak for anyone else on this “discussion,” but I absolutely did serve in the military – as a US Army Special Forces officer (Captain), serving in combat with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). My association with airplanes in Vietnam varied – from calling in close air support (from SAF, US Army, VNAF aircraft) and doing combat assaults from US Army and Vietnamese Air Force rotary wing aircraft, and various other missions (including official use of non-military aircraft).
      We were extremely thankful for all of those assets and put them to good use (and no, we were not on the ground killing innocent civilians – we were fighting armed opponents, some of whom had air assets of their own). I spent almost a year and a half in VN, about half of it on combat patrols in dense rain forest in rugged mountains – neither easy nor “safe,” either for us or for our insertion aircraft. I saw more than a couple US aircraft get shot down and I have enormous respect for those who risked their lives as pilots and crew of our air assets.
      What I would have given to have had a drone just to observe enemy positions! As it was, the best I could get in that regard was as an observer in the back seat of an L-19, trying to figure out what the situation was on the ground prior to being inserted into a patrol area. I am still thankful for the outstanding Birddog pilots who risked their necks every day to support us! And of course, before and after VN, I jumped out of “perfectly good airplanes” as a quick way to get to an “objective”…

  9. Absolutely not! It does matter when one thinks they know what it’s like for those that have done it. Too much negativity. Maybe just a congrats if one feels they need to comment.

  10. Totally appropriate to honor drone pilots for their skill and judgment. They do carry high stresses that can affect health, and it’s not risk free. But, it’s just different from having one’s a$$ strapped into a flying machine and being shot at. I hope they will establish a separate track in the future.

  11. IMO “pilot” should be reserved to those who have been trained and actually can travel in the air controlling the aircraft. Those staying on the ground and controlling an aircraft/drone should be called “operators”, not pilots. See, for example, how astronauts are defined (Wikipedia): “An astronaut (…) is a person trained, equipped, and deployed by a human spaceflight program to serve as a commander or crew member aboard a spacecraft. (…) the term is sometimes applied to anyone who travels into space (…).” So you have to ‘travel’ there, and not sit in front of a monitor with joysticks in your hands. Houston Space Center employees, even if they control remotely certain systems in the spacecraft, are NOT called astronauts. Again, IMO, it’s a mistake to issue ‘pilots’ certificates (and awards, by that matter) to drone operators.

    • I agree, he is a UAV operator. He may have gone through Navy flight school and has the wings for that, but his current job is as an operator, not a pilot.

  12. As someone else pointed out, the real difference is that this “aviator” never aviates, and never puts himself at risk for a mission.
    That by itself puts him in a totally different category from actual pilots.
    Yes, modern fighters involve a lot of “system management”, but it’s not exclusively system management.
    These guys go home every night and have put themselves at zero risk.
    When was the last time a drone pilot was shot down by an enemy?

    • An academic who has earned a doctor’s degree in linguistics is not referred to as a “doctor” and neither should a UAV operator be considered or referred to as a pilot. There’s more to it than just semantics as the folks who venture forth with body and soul into the sky will attest to as we see right here.

    • Sheer utter nonsense when it comes to Marine Corps drone operators. The VMU units deploy with Marine Corps units and operate with combat units.

      “He began training as a UAS pilot in 2014, attending Air Force and Air National Guard courses as the small community was evolving and the Marine Corps eyed expanding from mid-sized Group 3 systems to the larger Group 5 UAS. He joined Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 at Cherry Point, N.C., in 2016 and operated the RQ-21 in shipboard deployments with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Marine Aircraft Group 29. Operating the RQ-21 meant training alongside ground units, “supporting ground scheme of maneuver at the tactical level,” he said.

      In 2020 he joined VMU-3 at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. He began training on the MQ-9A in 2021. The larger aircraft, which fly faster and higher and have longer range, are handled differently than the smaller Group 3s.

      The MQ-9A is operated by a pilot and a sensor operator. The pilot is in charge of physical manipulation of the aircraft and its payloads,” Gentry said. “The sensor operator is working non-flight critical aspects of the aircraft,” including cameras and sensors, and communication is shared among both. Unlike with Group 3s like the RQ-21, “the roles are not interchangeable,” he added.

      Deployments for the MQ-9 community can mean duty in the continental U.S. or overseas. So far Gentry has completed two “combat embeds,” as they are called, supporting combat operations.”

      In other words, your comment that Marine Corps drone units “go home every night and have put themselves at zero risk” shows a complete lack of knowledge about how Marines train, deploy, and fight.

      • When is the last time Maj. Gentry had to risk ejecting out of a RQ-21 or MQ-9, sir? That he’s “embedded” doesn’t have anything to do with the price of tea in China … two different things. In the very first comment of this series, I said “I don’t know how USMC drone units are organized.” That he’s eating dirt with the grunts is VERY laudible but he’s still not at risk of his life or limb while slipping the surly bonds.

        • He’s risking his life along with the rest of the Marines, grunts and airwingers alike. Whether flying or in a fighting hole (NOT a foxhole) he and his fellow Marines are equally at risk of life and limb. You’re just as dead whether you’re shot down and killed in an aerial encounter, attacking an enemy position, or defending yours. The point that some have made is that drone operators are at little to no risk because they’re thousands of miles away and not in a combat zone. Not so those Marine drone operators.

          And it’s not “laudible” (laudable) that they’re eating dirt with the grunts. That’s what Marines do…riflemen first, everyone’s trained and proficient in basic infantry weapons and tactics, regardless of their MOS, and are expected to “shoot, move, and communicate.”
          Marine Corps history is full of examples where airwingers (including pilots) did exactly that, proficiently and effectively.

  13. Congratulations to drone pilot, Maj. Shane Gentry. Drones are and will be pivotal in both military and law enforcement venues, with their roles extending from simple surveillance to sophisticated combat operations as now being the case in the Ukraine. As technology advances, we’ll see drones operating autonomously and in swarms, capable of handling complex, high-stakes missions from low to high altitudes and short to long ranges. On the military front, drones have proven to be integral to frontline operations, effectively engaging in actual combat scenarios, Hi-Tech grunts. They provide critical support in both low-altitude, close-quarter combat environments and high-altitude, long-range engagements. This means “drone pilots” will be essential, operating from the trenches, not limited to 9 to 5 missions from Victorville, and exposed areas, where they’ll risk their lives to maneuver these drones effectively under combat conditions. On the law enforcement front, expect drones to assist in everything from traffic monitoring to detailed crime scene analysis. However, as the use of drones expands, the development of comprehensive laws and ethical guidelines, along with counter-drone technologies, will be crucial to manage their use responsibly. Essentially, drones are set to become an indispensable part of security and defense, revolutionizing both how operations are conducted and the very nature of combat and surveillance.

    • The ongoing drone warfare observed between Ukraine and Russia underscores a profound evolution in military strategy, echoing Howard Hughes’ prescient remark, “It’s the way of the future.” This conflict demonstrates not just the utility of drones in modern combat, but their potential to reshape how wars are fought entirely. Burn the Scarf!

      • Im wondering if there will maybe a cycle of using manned piston fighters again to shoot down long range drones like the ones Iran used and sells to Russia.
        That will likely lead to FPV fighters to shoot the manned fighters down and protect the other drones.
        It’s like the old Spy vs Spy cartoons.

  14. View this about USAF pilot training costs:

    To the end of the list, add ‘drone pilot’ … $2999.00


  15. I guess we all knew that this day was coming. I’d like to say to Major Gentry, with a large measure of thanks for his service. Vietnam veterans, regardless of what they did in a war zone, are hearing this quite more today than we did in the ’60’s, ’70’s and even in the ’80’s, it is belated but none the less appreciated. I do have one close friend that converted from an Air Force pilot that was deployed to Iraq more than once flying the A-10 Wart Hog. He knows, like all combat pilots, what it’s like to fly in spite of the level of fear we have all flown through. We know quite well what it’s like to be shot at and hit. Daryl as a LTC was selected to become a Drone Squadron Commander and as such he was sent to Drone pilot training, his comment afterwards was completing that training program was one of the most difficult things he had ever done. He is only one of three people I ever knew that went to flight school twice, once in the Army and later in the Air Force, he is now retired as an 0-6. The reality is that drones are here to stay and will become a supporter of both the troops on the ground as well as supporters of fighter pilot’s and intelligence services for all of the services. This is progress that exceeds my vision of the military I served in for over 26 years.

  16. The comments above are far ranging regarding the selection of Aviator of the Year. Seems simple to me, but comes with little surprise considering the direction that the Corps has taken in recent years. Now, it is official. We can not even differentiate between apples and oranges because our common sense is “Not OBSERVED”!!!!!!!!

  17. Skilled drone operators are now a significant contributor to mission success. Everyone agrees to this. The skillset and training involved ensure a high probability of achieving the desired outcomes—that’s granted. We all appreciate the effort. If a drone operator is working in hostile territory then kudos are well earned. The psychological ramifications of that job are not minor. But, there is a difference!

  18. Yes, to all who support that skin in the game is a requirement to be top aviator! Desk jockeys may do awesome things but can never be “Top Aviators.”

  19. Using the term “pilot” for drone operators is more than a semantic choice; it is a recognition of the professionalism, complexity, and critical importance of their role. This designation aligns with the regulatory standards, acknowledges the sophisticated nature of the technology, and respects the strategic impact of their work. The appropriate rank assignment, based on the MTOW and operational complexity, ensures that drone pilots are suitably qualified, reflecting their readiness to undertake missions that are integral to military and civilian aerospace initiatives.

    As an example:

    U.S. Air Force
    1. RQ-4 Global Hawk
    • Recommended Rank: Captain to Major
    • Rationale: Requires high-level decision-making due to strategic reconnaissance missions.
    • MTOW: 32,250 lbs

    2. MQ-9 Reaper
    • Recommended Rank: Lieutenant to Captain
    • Rationale: Involvement in direct combat operations necessitates experienced judgment.
    • MTOW: 10,494 lbs

    3. MQ-1C Gray Eagle
    • Recommended Rank: Lieutenant to Captain
    • Rationale: Engages in surveillance and targeted strike requiring tactical decision-making.
    • MTOW: 3,600 lbs

    4. MQ-1 Predator
    • Recommended Rank: Lieutenant to Captain
    • Rationale: Older model but still requires significant skill for surveillance and light strike missions.
    • MTOW: 2,250 lbs

    5. MQ-8 Fire Scout
    • Recommended Rank: Warrant Officer to Lieutenant
    • Rationale: Unmanned helicopter operations supporting naval operations.
    • MTOW: 3,150 lbs

    6. X-47B
    • Recommended Rank: Lieutenant to Captain
    • Rationale: High-tech, experimental UCAV requiring advanced piloting skills.
    • MTOW: 44,567 lbs

    7. RQ-21 Blackjack
    • Recommended Rank: Warrant Officer to Lieutenant
    • Rationale: Tactical UAV operations supporting ground and maritime forces.
    • MTOW: 135 lbs

    8. RQ-7 Shadow
    • Recommended Rank: Sergeant (E-5) to Warrant Officer
    • Rationale: Operated often by Army and Marine units, suitable for non-commissioned officers or warrant officers due to its tactical surveillance nature.
    • MTOW: 375 lbs

    9. MQ-25 Stingray
    • Recommended Rank: Lieutenant to Captain
    • Rationale: Complex refueling operations requiring precise maneuvering and coordination.
    • MTOW: 30,865 lbs (estimated)

    • OK, Raf. So you’re saying that if someone has a lot of time playing with Microsoft Flight Simulator they oughta be eligible for a private pilot’s license. I don’t think so.

      • Larry, I appreciate your analogy, but there’s a fundamental difference between recreational simulation games like Microsoft Flight Simulator and the operational systems used in military drone piloting. Drone operators undergo rigorous training and are subject to stringent regulatory standards, much like manned aircraft pilots. The term “pilot” in this context is not about the medium (aircraft vs. drones) but about the level of responsibility, decision-making, and skill required. These operators are controlling highly sophisticated technology that plays a critical role in national security and commercial applications. The recommended ranks reflect the complexity and strategic importance of their missions, not just their ability to operate a joystick. The analogy to Flight Simulator might downplay the extensive training and qualifications these operators must achieve to perform at these levels.