The week of September 13, 2015

The loneliness of the long-distance drone pilot

By Aaron Sankin

Bruce Black had been preparing for this moment for most of his life.

Growing up, he always wanted to be a pilot. After graduating from New Mexico State University in 1984 with a degree in geology, Black was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. He spent years as an instructor pilot before quitting to join the FBI, where he specialized in chasing down white-collar criminals, but the pull of military was too strong. He eventually found himself in the air above Afghanistan.

Black flew constantly. Once, in the spring of 2007, Black’s job was to serve as another set of eyes high above a firefight happening on the ground. An Army convoy had been patrolling near a site of a previous strike and gotten ambushed by Taliban fighters while returning to base. Black was acting as a crucial communications relay, sending life-and-death updates back and forth from the men and women on the ground to the Pentagon and a network of support staff located around the world through the military’s version of the Internet.

“I could hear what they were hearing,” he recalled. “I could hear them yell commands at each other. I could literally hear the sound of bullets whizzing by above their heads.”

And then, suddenly, something changed. A door opened and light flooded the small, boxy room he was sitting in. Black blinked as his eyes readjusted. He looked from the wall of screens in front of him and over to a man who had just walked in carrying a cup of coffee.

For a moment, Black had lost himself over the skies of Afghanistan. He was nowhere near the combat area, nowhere near the soldiers whose lives he had been tasked with guarding. In actuality, Black had been sitting in an ergonomic chair in a room that resembled nothing so much as a shipping container at Creech Air Force Base, about a 45-minute drive northwest of his home in Las Vegas.

While Black, who has since retired and now works as a consultant in the civilian drone industry, may have started his military career piloting traditional manned aircraft, he spent much of the latter part inside a drone’s virtual cockpit. During his years piloting MQ-1 Predator and RQ-170 Sentinel drones, along with some manned aircraft like the C-130 Hercules, for the Air Force, Black logged over 1,500 combat hours of flight time.

The man with the cup of coffee in his hand, the one who had suddenly transported Black back from Afghanistan, was there to relieve him. Black’s shift was over, and his fellow pilot was about take over, the drone still hovering in midair. It was time to get back in the car, drive back to Vegas, and sleep in his own bed.

“Normally, when you go to war, you go into a theater,” he explained. “You sleep in a tent every night and you walk half a mile to go to the bathroom. In the Predator world, you’re in Las Vegas. You get up in the morning, kiss the wife goodbye and drive up the base. But when you get into the box, you’re right there in the theater. You’re at war. It’s incredibly strange.”

“When you get into the box, you’re right there in the theater. You’re at war. It’s incredibly strange.”

Black’s schizophrenic experience of war is one that’s becoming increasingly common as the military’s use of drones skyrockets. Since 2005, there’s been a 1,200 percent increase in combat air patrols conducted via drone, and, according to a 2012 congressional report, one out of every three airplanes operated by the military is a drone.

Underneath this growth is a serious problem: Drone pilots are dropping out of the program at an alarming rate. The Air Force is having serious difficulties filling spots not just for drone pilots but for the teams of support technicians necessary for every single mission. According to a recently leaked memo sent from Air Combat Command commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s drone force is “stretched to the breaking point and it has been for a long time.”

It’s a problem that seems to be getting worse. To meet the growth in demand and counter the approximately 240 drone pilots who leave the service annually, the Air Force estimates it needs to train 300 new pilots each year. Right now, it’s getting about 180.

If drones are the future of combat, why don’t more people want to fly them?

Learning to fly

One week before the attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush held his cabinet’s first meeting on the subject of Al Qaeda and spent most of it arguing about drones. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal article by 9/11 Commission Report staffer Warren Bass, some members of the cabinet were profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of armed drones taking out targets located on side of the planet opposite from the person flying them.

Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was “skittish” about the whole thing. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice wanted to wait until the following year before even considering getting anything in the air. While CIA Director George Tenet was “appalled” at the idea of agency staffers being able to make the final call on taking out a target with a drone, he was bullish on using unmanned systems for surveillance and ultimately convinced the administration to get moving on the program.

Seven days later, the towers fell.

In two months’ time, Al Qaeda commander Mohammed Atef was killed when a Predator drone fired a missile on an Al Qaeda safehouse near Kabul. It was the first recorded instance of someone being killed by a military drone.

The drone that killed Atef wasn’t the first unmanned military aircraft to be flown over Afghanistan. The seeds of the American military’s drone program were planted during the Clinton administration, after suicide bombers took out the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in a coordinated multi-front attack that was to become the terrorist organization’s trademark.

Al Qaeda represented a new kind of threat. It didn’t have an obvious standing army; it had no capital building to bug, no military leaders with phone lines to tap. Gaining actionable intelligence on the organization and its Saudi Arabia-born leader, Osama bin Laden, was proving difficult. Bin Laden had a tendency to move around, and officials feared that by the time a tip about his whereabouts made its way back to the Pentagon, he would already be gone. What America needed was a way to easily and cheaply surveil large swaths of territory on a near-constant basis.

If drones are the future of combat, why don’t more people want to fly them?

The solution the administration settled on came in the form of a relatively small unmanned flying aircraft with a 55-foot wingspan developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. It was called  Predator.

The U.S. military had been handing out contracts to aerospace companies for the development of drones for decades. In the mid-1970s, the Army commissioned Lockheed Martin to build one. A billion dollars and a dozen years later, it was scrapped. Likewise, Boeing developed the Condor, a giant drone that used a wingspan of 200 feet to set a handful of records. It became the first fully automated aircraft to complete a full flight from takeoff to landing. It too was scrapped.

Around the same time, Abraham Karem started designing military drones. As recounted in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine by military historian Richard Whittle, Karem initially tried to sell his creations to government of his native Israel but eventually grew frustrated with his inability to make sales and decamped to the United States. Setting up shop in a suburb of Los Angeles, Karem struck a contract to make drones for DARPA in the early 1980s. By the end of the decade, he had developed a radio-controlled drone called Amber that was not only able to take off and land like a traditional airplane, but it also could be launched by a rocket and land vertically on the bed of a truck or submarine. Best of all, Amber could fly for dozens of hours without crashing. The future looked rosy, but Congress slashed the military’s budget for drone programs, and Karem’s contract with DARPA was cut.

His small firm went bankrupt, but a pair of billionaire brothers, Linden and Neal Blue, who saw the potential in what he was working on, brought Karem into their own burgeoning drone company. Karem evolved Amber forward a couple generations, renamed it Predator (even though the craft wasn’t initially designed to carry weapons), and then promptly left the company to pursue other drone projects, before the vehicle ever got into the air.

The first Predator drone flew over Afghanistan nearly one year to the day before 9/11. Soaring over the Al Qaeda training camp of Tarnak Farms near Kandahar, the drone’s camera affixed on a tall, bearded man in a white robe. It was bin Laden himself. A post-flight analysis conducted by the CIA showed that the drone had located its prime target on its first try. The drone was unarmed. The mission was purely for information gathering. There was no trigger to pull.

Clinton counter-terrorism czar Richard Clark called the footage obtained from the drone’s flight “truly astonishing” and pushed to expand the program by equipping the Predators with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. If a drone could find bin Laden, a drone could certainly kill him.

But the Bush administration, which came into the White House the next year, initially balked at pushing forward with the drone program. They were wary not only of putting the power to take human life essentially into the hands of a robot but also about what would happen if an attack drone were shot down.

As recounted in the 9/11 Commission Report, CIA Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black wrote at the time, “I do not believe the possible recon value outweighs the risk of possible program termination when the stakes are raised by the Taliban parading a charred Predator in front of CNN.”

So the drones sat on the runway. At least for a while.

The theater or war

“The reason you can’t get most drone pilots on the phone is because of the threats against them,” Black told me over the phone. “Or they’re active duty pilots and they’re probably under orders not to talk.”

Al Qaeda represented a new kind of threat.

He was right. I reached out to a number of military drone pilots for this story, and Black was the only one willing to go on record. He views it as a continuation of his mission to give the public an insight into the positive aspects of the military’s drone program. Even though over half of Americans approve of the use of drone strikes to “kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas,” the issue remains deeply contentious.

Black pointed to the comments on an interview he did with the state-owned, Western-focused Russian news site RT in 2013. “I would love to stick a grenade up this guys but hole and watch him splatter like the dog meat he is,” read one. “Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Black, It would give me the biggest org-sm [sic] of my life to kick you to your knees and shoot you in the face Oh wait. I guess you live on your knees licking Satan’s a-ss [sic]. Coward,” read another.

Internet comments being what they are, screeds posted in comment sections should be taken with a shaker of salt. But it’s hard to argue that drones represent something fundamentally new about how the military operates that makes lot of people profoundly uncomfortable.

In a lot of ways, drones have become the faceless face of how the United States goes to war, especially in the Obama era. Armed drones have become ubiquitous not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in countries where no war has been officially declared other than the overarching one “On Terror.”

According to data collected by the New America Foundation and based on local and international news reports, the U.S. military has waged an undeclared, covert war in northern Pakistan, conducted largely through drone strikes. It’s aimed at disrupting the ability of terrorists to cross the border into Afghanistan and undermine the U.S.’s position in the county. Over the past decade, the New America Foundation has logged nearly 400 individual drone strikes in Pakistan, ending the lives of somewhere between 2,200 and 3,600 people. The Foundation has also tracked a similar unmanned air campaign in Yemen, which has logged 118 total strikes with approximately 800 to 1,100 people on the ground there reportedly killed.

These covert drone wars are conducted largely in secret; the government didn’t even officially admit the CIA was engaging in targeted drone killings in Pakistan until last year.

While the total number of people killed by drones in Pakistan and Yemen extends into the thousands—and that’s not even including the multitudes killed in the declared theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan—what’s stuck in the craw of the drone program’s myriad of critics are the stories and images of the innocent civilians killed as result of these strikes. There’s a been a great deal of fighting about the accuracy of the numbers, but the New America Foundation estimates somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 civilians have been killed in Pakistani drone strikes over the years; in Yemen, the number is under 100.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues that the Foundation’s data set is limited only to the drone strikes that don’t go unreported in the media. Also, the line separating innocent civilians from dangerous “militants” is almost always drawn in the news reports by “unnamed Pakistani officials.” Other research projects into the ability of drone strikes to exclusively hit the targets they were aiming for have drawn wildly diverging results. The website Pakistan Body Count puts the proportion of civilian casualties in U.S. drone strikes in the country well over 50 percent of all people killed. Conversely, a 2013 report by the Pakistani government said that only 3 percent of the people killed in American drone strikes since 2008 had been innocent civilians.

Drones have become the faceless face of how the United States goes to war, especially in the Obama era.

The truth is likely somewhere in the gray area between those two extremes. Regardless, even if “the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts … is false,” as proclaimed in study conducted by Stanford’s Intentional Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU’s Global Justice Clinic, drones remain a far more responsible airborne vehicle than the traditional manned alternative.

In a piece in the New Yorker about President Obama’s drone war in Pakistan, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Steve Coll noted that the “proportion of civilians killed on the ground during Vietnam have been disputed by researchers. But even the most conservative estimates of civilian casualties place the ratio at one-to-one.” In other words, even if the figures show the U.S.’s drone strikes having killed hundreds of innocents, including children, they likely present a cleaner record than would have occurred if non-drone methods were employed to take out those same targets. (Whether those actions would have been taken in the first place if the military—or the CIA, as the case may be—didn’t have a fleet of drones at its disposal is a different question entirely. Drones often allow the military to go places they wouldn’t otherwise have gone, thereby expanding the scope of the war.)

A drone’s ability to pinpoint a target with unprecedented precision from a safe distance thousands of miles away is an advantage, Black insists, over the manned aircraft he began his military career piloting.

Black tells the story of how his drone team hovered above the safehouse where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was hiding for some 600 hours in 2006 while waiting for the perfect moment to order the F-16 strike that ultimately killed the terrorist leader. “We were waiting for a time when we could minimize civilian casualties,” he recalled.

Al-Zarqawi’s death was international news. It represented a major victory in a pre-surge, pre-Sunni Awakening Iraq. Even so, sitting in a dark room staring at video footage of an isolated building just north of the Iraqi city of Baqubah sounds like considerably less than the heart-pounding adrenaline rush that most fighter pilots signed up for.

In fact, it sounds really, really boring.

Collateral damage

Drone strikes may get most of attention, but shooting Hellfire missiles at the enemy only makes up a small fraction of what a drone pilot actually does.

The vast majority of a drone pilot’s time is spent flying around and looking at things. Wars are won and lost on the amount and quality of information fed to commanders, and drones give the ability to collect lots of information. Equipped with an array of nine video cameras called the Gorgon Stare, a drone can track everything that’s happening in an entire village in real time at a level of detail capable of determining whether a target on the ground is smiling or frowning. That information can be streamed either back to the Pentagon or onto a tablet-sized device in the hand of a soldier on the ground.

Drones often allow the military to go places they wouldn’t otherwise have gone, thereby expanding the scope of the war.

One drone pilot based out of New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base told Mother Jones that most of what he saw was people in Middle Eastern towns and cities going about their daily lives:

It might be little things like a group of kids throwing rocks at goats, or at each other, or an old man startled by a barking dog…You get a sense of daily life. I’ve been on the same shift for a month and you learn the patterns. Like, I’ll know at 5 a.m. this guy is gonna go outside and take a shit. I’ve seen a lot of dudes take shits.

Another time we followed this guy outside his house for half an hour, and all he did was go scoop water from a stream. Seeing that just made it sink in—how we live worlds apart.

“I’m overpaid, underworked, and bored,” another pilot told the magazine.

That broad sort of intelligence gathering work isn’t the only type of job that drone pilots and sensor operators, with whom they typically work in tandem, do on a regular basis. The U.S. Army or Marines will commonly call in a drone to do what’s call “overwatch,” following troops on the ground to give them a clearer picture of what’s going on around them.

“It could get pretty boring, at least a lot more boring than being in the middle of a firefight,” Black said, “but it still was providing a crucial service. You being where you need to be is still necessary to make sure, for example, you know if target of a raid on a house goes running out the black door when Marines come in the front.”

Being physically removed from the action doesn’t necessarily mean that what drone operators see on their screens doesn’t affect them profoundly.

Paul Rolfe is a former military drone pilot who flew missions in Afghanistan, alternately based in both Kandahar and Nevada. He told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that, while being in Afghanistan was certainly more stressful, the missions he flew while safely ensconced in the United States still took their toll. “I didn’t even realize I was stressed,” he said, recounting one particular incident that stuck in his mind. “I had my last sortie, I stepped away and the following day I came out in hives.”

In an emotional interview with NBC News, former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant said that looking at the graphic images of the dead bodies of the more 1,600 people killed by drone missions in which he participated gave him post-traumatic stress disorder. He recalled one particularly vivid incident in which his team fired a pair of misses at a group of men walking down a road in Afghanistan.

“The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,” he said. “And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.

“I can see every little pixel… if I just close my eyes.”

In a sense, flying an armed drone may be more emotionally taxing than piloting a traditional warplane. In the old days, a pilot would shoot a missile and then fly off back to base. Drones, on the other hand, can and are often required to linger. They can survey the destruction to see if the people the military wanted killed are actually dead. And they do it all in high-definition.

A drone can track everything that’s happening in an entire village in real time at a level of detail capable of determining whether a target on the ground is smiling or frowning.

The long-distance nature of flying a drone can make a pilot’s coping even more difficult. Pilots of traditional aircraft typically do sustained tours of duty overseas. They live on a military base. Many of the people they interact with on a daily basis have their same level of security clearance, so they can all blow off steam with a beer after getting off for the day and talk about what happened.

Drone pilots, at least the ones based in the U.S., don’t have that same luxury. After stepping out of the box for the day, they get into their cars, and drive home to their families. Spouses and kids don’t have that same security clearance, meaning talking about what a pilot or sensor operator did that day isn’t an option. Instead of having to make the switch from military to civilian life once every few months, drone operators have to do it on a daily basis.

“It’s more frustrating than anything else. Your family doesn’t have a security clearance, so it makes for really boring dinner conversation,” Lt. Col. David Kent told the military news outlet Stars and Stripes. “You feel really good about something you did that day, but you can’t say anything. Your family can’t share the triumphs and trials with you.”

Conversely, the graphic, disturbing images drone pilots witness can get bottled up. The Air Force was initially unprepared for this mental stress put on drone pilots, and those not based overseas spent years receiving inadequate support. Recently, there’s been a recognition of the issue; Creech Air Force Base, where many of domestic drone pilots are based, has begun offering counseling to drone operators.

Yet, the experience of being a drone pilot has changed many of them profoundly. A Pentagon study found that nearly one third of drone pilots suffered from “burnout” due to fatigue, and 17 percent were “clinically distressed.”

In a heart-wrenching 2013 op-ed in the Guardian, former drone operator Heather Linebaugh explained how coming face-to-face with images of the destruction wrought by American military drones affected her.

“I may not have been on the ground in Afghanistan, but I watched parts of the conflict in great detail on a screen for days on end. I know the feeling you experience when you see someone die. Horrifying barely covers it,” she explained. “And when you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience. … [Drone] troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were.”


In early 2013, military brass announced the creation of the “Distinguished Warfare Medal,” the first new combat medal introduced in 70 years. It would be one of the highest honors in the military, outranking both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and was meant to honor the exemplary service of a select few drone pilots and cyber-warriors who went above and beyond the call of duty—even those stationed on the other side of the planet from the action. The medal signified the changing face of the military as it evolved into a high-tech future.

It mainly just pissed everyone off.

The long-distance nature of flying a drone can make a pilot’s coping even more difficult.

A bipartisan coalition wrote a letter slamming the medal as an insult to the troops who put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis. The families of veterans injured or killed in the line of duty called it “a slap in the face.” The media derisively labeled it “The Nintendo Medal.”

The Pentagon eventually withdrew the medal and has since embarked on a still-ongoing year-long study to “determine the best way to recognize service members who use remote technology to directly impact combat operations.”

Even Black thought the medal was terrible idea. “I think the medal is dumb,” he said. “I’m doing my job. Am I doing my job better than the guy on the ground who is kicking in the door? If so, promote me. There’s no valor in doing your job correctly.”

The problem, he adds, is that drone pilots aren’t getting promoted.

A study put out by the Brookings Institution found that because the need for drone pilots is so great and the number of pilots is so small, it’s difficult for drone pilots to get the additional training they need to get promotions. In addition, even though drone pilots typically average far more cockpit time per month than traditional pilots (around 1,000 hours per year, compared to 200-300), those hours don’t cross back into manned aircraft. A drone pilot can rack up huge quantities of time in the air, but it won’t help them get back to flying F-16s if that was why he or she signed up to join the Air Force in the first place. The study also found that “[drone] pilots are unable to meet promotion education, and training opportunities commensurate with other officers, resulting in a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of Major over the last five years.”

“These medals are like Band-Aids on a bleeding chest wound,” Black said. “The best thing they can do for the community is to stop screwing the people flying the airplanes.”

While the Air Force has since created a training program specific to drones, Black noted that when he started, most of drone operators began as fighter pilots and were pushed into flying drones. “Going into drones is a ‘kiss of death,'” he explained, though he was quick to add that going into drones was one of the best career decisions he ever made. “These poor guys were yanked out of the cockpit. I don’t care how many medals you put on their chests; they’re going to be looking for the door.”

This feeling of being stuck in a dead-end of drones is likely why the military is having trouble filling the ranks of drone pilots. There are currently just under 1,000 active duty Predator and Reaper drone pilots when the military needs 1,200, and the demand is only growing.

“It could get pretty boring, at least a lot more boring than being in the middle of a firefight.”

The Air Force has announced some steps in recent weeks to help stem the tide, including increasing the pilots’ monthly incentive pay from $650 to $1,500 and widening the net within the military for recruiting drone pilots.

Representatives from the Air Force did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Over the long term, striking the right balance will inevitably be tricky. A lot of military drone operators take issue with the word “drone.” They prefer to call what they fly Remote Piloted Aircraft, or RPAs. The problem is that “drone” implies thoughtless automation, a robot going through the motions, doing what it’s told. While that description may be accurate for the big objects soaring through the skies over Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, the system is far larger than that. It includes human beings who have to think, analyze information, and make decisions.

Drones aren’t just drones. They’re also people tasked with doing jobs. Sometimes those jobs involve spying on unsuspecting people as they go about their days, and other times they involved staring directly into the rapidly cooling pool of blood from someone who was just killed by a missile someone on your team shot.

If the military wants to pin much of its future on drones, it’s going to have to figure out how to keep those people satisfied.

This story was originally published in the Feb. 1, 2015 issue of the Kernel.

Illustration by J. Longo