Air Force Drone Pilots Are Bummed

The flying service's drone crews feel a negative perception hangs over their line of work, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Apr 17 2014, 9:40pm
Senior Airman Travis and Capt. Ben fly an MQ-1 Predator during the wings 2 million flying hour milestone, October 2013. Image: US Air Force

They're flying remotely-piloted aircraft from climate-controlled trailers across the American west, putting in long, shorthanded hours, and generally feeling low. 

According to a Government Accountability Office report from April of this year, US Air Force drone pilots feel a negative perception hangs over their line of work. What's more, the GAO found that USAF drone pilots lack training and are experiencing depleted crew morale. Of course, the findings shouldn't be generalized to include all those tied up in the US's hunter-killer drone campaign abroad, but they do offer a fascinating look into the inter-agency politics and daily goings-on of a world kept far from public view.

Let's step back. In September 2012, Senate leaders tasked the GAO with studying how the Air Force manages its drone crews, which over the past six years have tripled in size, the Air Force Times reports. To that end, the flying service held focus groups at three bases: Beale Air Force Base (California), Cannon Air Force Base (New Mexico), and Creech Air Force Base (Nevada).

The resulting GAO report has determined that when it comes to creating a robust career field for drone operators, testing so-called "alternative personnel" for pilot status weighing the various effects of on-base deployment, and analyzing how being a drone pilot might impact your chances of being promoted in the future, the Air Force must hear out its drone crews.

In addition to drone-pilot testimony during the focus group sessions, the GAO's study was based on interviews with unit commanders of remotely-piloted squadrons at the three bases, and with officials at Air Force Headquarters. The report also draws from personnel planning documents, previous AF studies, and data on officer promotions. 

Here's what they found: All 10 of the groups selected for the GAO's focus groups said that there is an overarching negative perception of drone pilots. Four of the groups, to be sure, did say that that perception is improving, and that the flying service is actively working to alleviate undue stress, which can lead to PTSD-like symptoms, or what's known in drone circles as burnout.

But the 10 groups also all agreed that while being a drone pilot isn't necessarily detrimental to one's chances of upward mobility within the USAF, promotion as an RPA operator is still hard to come by. The 10 also all said that USAF pilots have low morale and they "face challenging working conditions and are limited in pursuing developmental opportunities," the AF Times adds. What's more, all the groups additionally reported that both the quality and quantity of the operational flight training they receive are given short shrift from the AF, and that they must grapple with a nagging uncertainty regarding their long-term careers.  

Nine of the groups said that while working conditions are getting better, marathon work days spent engaged in shadow war efforts thousands of miles away exacerbate stress on relations with family and friends. Eight of the groups reported that drone crews are short on hands, and that there doesn't seem to be a career path carved out across the RPA field. 

The report goes on: According to seven of the 10 groups, promotion rates are actually getting better for the AF's drone pilots. And yet those four groups also said that pilots and their leaders up the chain just don't have adequate experience to do what they're doing, which has a way of undercutting retention rates. Accordingly, six of the groups reported that pilots aren't getting enough feedback from their superiors. Perhaps notably, half of the focus groups said that RPA pilots simply do not perform as well as other pilots with the USAF, and that the service lacks a working knowledge of its own unmanned aerial missions.

To complicate everything even further, there's the sticky fact that, as we reported last week, former US drone pilots' are alleging that the CIA has tapped the Air Force to fly the CIA's deadly and covert drone campaign over the Middle East and Horn of Africa. 

Someday soon, drone pilots will outnumber traditional fighter pilots in the USAF's ranks. But for now—and within the US military, no less—there's still a hesitancy and stigma toward drones and their operators. Why would the USAF's drone crews not feel a bit bummed? And what are we going to do—what should we do—about it?