McCaskill: Drone Pilot Stress is Unprecedented

Two airmen perform function checks after launching an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Steve Horton)
Two airmen perform function checks after launching an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Steve Horton)

WASHINGTON -- A Missouri senator is pressing her concerns over combat stress among drone pilots, yet another sign of the troubles plaguing the Air Force's burgeoning warfare program.

After a recent visit to her state's Whiteman Air Force Base, Sen. Claire McCaskill wrote a letter to the service saying the conditions that pilots endure is unprecedented and the psychological effects might not yet be known. She published the letter to Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on Thursday, asking for his plans to deal with the billet's unique problems.

Military demand for drones in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has ballooned in recent years and the Air Force has struggled to fill the needed positions, keep pilots from being overworked and make time for needed training. Research has also suggested that pilots based in the United States face the same mental stress of those deployed to war zones.

A remotely piloted aircraft pilot "could be sitting down to a meal with his or her family less than two hours after killing Islamic State or Taliban fighters on the other side of the world," McCaskill wrote. "They could be playing with their children shortly after witnessing up close and in graphic detail the effects of a 500-pound bomb or Hellfire missile on a soft target."

The Democratic senator visited the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base in May.

McCaskill said troops in a war zone could have more resources to help them decompress after the stress of battle than drone operators, who are among about 1,000 personnel who use screens and joysticks to fly continual combat and surveillance missions around the world.

"While at Whiteman, I heard that some RPA pilots prefer to work a shift that finishes in the middle of the night because it gives them the opportunity to relax and decompress with their fellow airmen without feeling pressure to get home for dinner with their spouse and children," she wrote.

The Air Force has increased pay for the drone pilots and announced plans to reduce daily flights from 65 to 60. But its main problem remains recruitment, because too few sign on to fill over 1,200 positions that the service needs.

Despite working in relative safe conditions and air-conditioned facilities, a study in 2013 by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found drone pilots report high levels of stress and fatigue, and suffer the same rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions as pilots flying downrange combat missions.

In January, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James acknowledged the pilots are under stress from an "unrelenting pace of operations" and the conditions of the work.

She said they are typically logging four times the number of flying hours of other pilots.

These are very stressful operations, James said, "because mistakes can cost lives."

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