Air Force Unveils Plan To Improve Conditions For Drone Operators

Dec 10, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 11:19 pm

They are called Predators. The larger ones are named Reapers.

For the past twenty years the U.S. drones have circled the skies over Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Africa, and now Syria. Sometimes they provide constant surveillance — sending back live video. Mostly they unleash missiles into terrorist compounds.

Now the officer in charge of the Air Combat Command, Gen. Herbert Hawk Carlisle, who flew fighter and cargo aircraft, says its time to give those drone pilots a rest.

"We've just been running 'em so hard," Carlisle says. "Every single mission those guys go in and fly today is a combat mission."

Officials say they fear that the constant demands from combat missions are leaving the current force with little rest and relaxation or time for training, so the general says the plan is to double the estimated 700, as well as support personnel.

"You know, the term we use in flying is, it's a 'death spiral,' " Carlisle says. "If we just keep burning these folks out, and working them six days a week with little time off — and they're not allowed to go do any other jobs or any other things, and they're just doing constant combat missions — we'll lose them."

The pilots actually commute to war — flying the drones from a base in Nevada, where the lights of Las Vegas can be seen in the near distance. NPR followed one pilot back in 2007 as he pulled into Creech Air Force Base.

The pilots wear flight suits, each settling into a chair in a windowless room, then they flying the drones half a world away using satellite links.

Back then, fighter pilots joked about the "chair force" pilots flying the drones — asked them how many G-forces they pulled. But over the years, the demand for drones has only increased, and the jokes have faded.

Carlisle says the drone's live, streaming video has helped in humanitarian disasters and assisted in fighting wildfires. But for the most part, the 325 drones — 175 Reapers, 150 Predators — are used in military operations.

It has led to criticism from human rights groups about the antiseptic nature of drones — as well as civilian casualties — and about the drones' use in countries, including Somalia and Yemen, where the U.S. is not otherwise engaged in combat.

Still, the drones are becoming more and more popular with American combat commanders around the world.

"They're in demand across the range of military operations," Carlisle says. "It's really changed the way of warfare in many ways — or certainly the way we conduct in-theater air power."

The drones now fly 60 missions around the world each day, and the general says that number won't change — only the number of pilots will increase over the next 18 months. The Air Force also is exploring plans to base drone pilots overseas.

The general says the high demand for drones has led the government to hire civilian contractors to take part in two daily drone operations — but only for surveillance, not for bombing — and there are plans for expansion. But Carlisle says he wants to get the civilians out of any drone operations, saying it's an inherently military mission.

"As I get this program healthy, as I get the enterprise healthy, I would like to move away from contractors doing the missions," he says.

Instead, it would stay in the hands of the Air Force pilots commuting to war.

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The U.S. Air Force is planning to nearly double the number of pilots who fly drones. Officials say the workload pilots now have is leaving them without enough time for rest or training. NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: They're called Predators. The larger ones are named Reapers. For the past 20 years, they've circled the skies over Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Africa and now Syria. At times, those on the ground can hear a faint sound almost like a distant lawnmower. Sometimes they provide constant surveillance, sending back live video. Mostly, they unleash missiles into terrorist compounds. Now the officer in charge of the Air Combat Command, General Herbert Hawk Carlisle, who flew fighter and cargo aircraft, says it's time to give those drone pilots a rest.

GENERAL HERBERT HAWK CARLISLE: We've just been running them so hard. Every single mission those guys go in and fly today is a combat mission.

BOWMAN: So General Carlisle says the plan is to double the estimated 700 pilots as well as support personnel.

CARLISLE: You know, the term we use in flying is, it's a death spiral. It's - if we just keep burning these folks out and working them six days a week with, you know, very little time off and they're not allowed to go do any other jobs or any other things and they're just doing constant combat missions, we'll lose them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Morning, Sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Morning. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good.

BOWMAN: The pilots actually commute to war, flying the drones from a base in Nevada where the lights of Las Vegas can be seen in the near distance. NPR followed one pilot back in 2007 as he pulled into Creech Air Force Base. The pilots wear flight suits. They settle into a chair in a windowless room. Then they fly the drone half a world away by satellite link. Back then, fighter pilots joked about the Chair Force pilots flying the drones, ask them how many G-forces they pulled. But over the years, the demand for drones has only increased, and the jokes have faded.

General Carlisle says a drone's live stream video has helped in humanitarian disasters, helped in fighting wildfires. But for the most part, drones are used in military operations. That's led to criticism from human rights groups about the antiseptic nature of drones, worries about civilian causalities as well as a drone's use in countries like Somalia and Yemen where the U.S. is not engaged in a ground war. Still, General Carlisle says that drones are becoming more and more popular with American combat commanders around the world.

CARLISLE: They're in demand across the range of military operations. It's really changed the way of warfare in many ways or certainly the way that we conduct an theater airpower.

BOWMAN: The drones now 60 missions around the world each day, and General Carlisle says that number won't change. Only the number of pilots will increase over the next year and half. And the Air Force is exploring plans to base drone pilots overseas. The general says the high demand for drones has led the government to hire civilian contractors to take part in two daily drone operations but only for surveillance, not for bombing. And there are plans for expansion. But General Carlisle says he wants to get the civilians out of any drone operations, saying it's an inherently military mission.

CARLISLE: So as I get this program healthy, as I get the enterprise healthy, I would like to move away from contractors doing the missions.

BOWMAN: And leave it up to Air Force pilots commuting to war. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.