Drone Pilots

We treat our Predator pilots like crap. And we’re running out of pilots. Their superiors treat them as if they were insubordinate privates soulless robots. (Predator pilot doesn’t command much respect, especially in contrast to manned-aircraft pilots, which many drone pilots were before they were involuntarily transferred.) But even if they were treated like specialist experts (they are specialist experts, after all,) being a drone pilot is a rough job. I remember being surprised by the news that piloting Predators was more taxing than piloting jet fighter-bombers on strike sorties: It turns out that despite the risk of getting smacked out of the air by a SAM being reduced from death or capture to a chewing out by a boss, piloting a predator is way more stressful than piloting a jet fighter-bomber on an airstrike sortie. Who’da thunk?

To be fair, airplane pilots get some pretty great benes, even if they have to sometimes kill people.

According to those people I know who have piloted, flying is awesome. One of the joys of being a pilot is going for the ride. A plane is a giant contraption that allows you to fling yourself high into the air, control your trajectory a bit, and then (attempt to) hit the ground in a way that doesn’t hurt too much. It’s a pretty amazing thrill, and during the era before predator drones, we had fewer aircraft than people eager to fling themselves around in them, so we could choose the best of the best. Flying is a pretty amazing thrill, to the point that even when flying a Cessna 172 (essentially baby’s first plane) its pretty thrilling when less than fifty feet down the runway you can no longer feel the grind of the wheels against the tarmac, and you’re getting more air time than stunt cars in slow motion car chases. All the air time you ever could want. Of course, at some point you’re going to have to land, but part of the joy there is getting back on the ground without cracking up your plane and living to tell the tale. (Savor this moment: this piece only gets sadder from here.)

Drone pilots get none of that. In fact, they get to hot-seat their swanky computer set-up contained in a steel cargo box which is inadequately cleaned. A common complaint is that it smells like the collective farts of the six or seven other guys that frequently occupy it. Usually, operators (two guys per box, four per drone plus a coordinating officer) take twelve-hour shifts with no breaks, during which they don’t get to do any other crap (e.g. reading or whittling or crosswords or, according to some reports, taking a crap) while a whole lot of nothing is going on. Since drones do a lot of uneventful cruising from waypoint to waypoint, there’s an awful lot of that nothing, and sometimes they read or crossword anyway to stay sane.

According to the reports that leak from our (highly classified) drone strike programs there are two kinds of scenarios that send our drone pilots over the edge. The first is the surveillance when nothing can be done about it. Drones can often spot ambushes in wait or IEDs stashed under the road (which appear as distinctive cold spots in the pavement.) But we don’t yet have the means to just dial up the column of vehicles driving right into the kill zone (or we do, yet somehow it’s not reliable; or we do, but there’s logistical complications; or… or… or…) and our drone pilots get to watch as friendlies wade into the trap and get blasted to bits and there’s nothing to be done about it at all.

It’s a wonder that drone pilots are not at high risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Oh wait… it turns out they drink like CIA field agents. There are programs to drug test for UAV pilots, but what are we going to do? Transfer them? Discharge them?

The other pilot spirit-wrenching scenario is the opposite end. Drones monitor an Afghani / Pakistani town while some higher-up decides whether or not we should rain down upon it the fury of American glory in a barrage of Hellfire missiles. In the meantime our Drone teams get to watch this town full of soon-to-be-designated terrorists as they raise their children and shop for dinner and play with their dogs and eat and poop and fuck and do all the other things the pilots would happily be doing too if it weren’t for this sorry drone-pilot job.

Then the word comes down from on high that yes-indeedy, the whole town has been designated a strike target, and all these eating / fucking / child-raising people, ordinary human beings only yesterday are now militants or terrorists or persons of interest are supposed to be annihilated, and these pilots are the designated executioners. Their own hands pull the last triggers.

And then (it always gets worse) they have to stay and watch and look at the results. And the bodies, and the partial bodies, and the people still-moving-but-not-for-long, and the injured-that-need-medical-care and the walking-in-anguish are just as real, just as visceral to them as when they were eating and pooping and fucking before.

And the kids….*

Here in the States, one of the pressures we have to end capital punishment has come by way of a European embargo on the necessary ingredients we use for lethal injections. Some states have been using a lesser cocktail that is less reliable and causes more suffering. One of my hope-spots, those moments where I think the Human species might get civilized, celebrate diversity and collaboration and go to space after all, came when a governor of a Midwest state was considering firing squads. And it was explained to him that executioners, that is people willing to engage in an act murder in the name of the state, are rare. They’re very tough jobs to fill. And a firing squad needs more such people than usually exist in a region of tens of millions.

During the cold war, we had the same problem with ICBM Missile Combat Crews, many of whom openly stated that in a non-drill situation, he would totally not turn the launch key, even if it meant eating a bullet from his crewmate, because better that than than the personal responsibility for accidentally killing millions of people. (We often kept those guys on anyway.) I can’t imagine our nuclear bombardiers were any more reliable, but I don’t know the specifics.

And it turns out our drone pilots are not faring very well either, especially having to annihilate a town of civilians and then look at the aftermath in order to report to their superiors. It’s called drone pilot burnout. Our pilots are going mad with PTSD and either quitting or becoming too unreliable for service. It doesn’t help that their superiors two ranks up or more — the guys who mark towns to be annihilated in fire — don’t seem to care about the logistics or consequences of their policies, whether on the war effort or their own guys.

Maybe it’s a really good thing they’re having trouble finding new recruits for our drone pilot programs.

There seems to be here a lesson here, maybe even an optimistic one, about the risks of powering your magic with the souls of forsaken children, and why we shouldn’t do that and regard it as a mistake when we do. Also the Milgram results indicating the further removed you are from the guys pulling the triggers, the easier it is to tell them to kill.

I think that’s all I have to say about this today.

* Before, I talked about bugsplats. Your new vocabulary phrase of the day is fun-sized terrorists. You might be able to guess what this refers to.


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