A staff sergeant marshals an MQ-9 Reaper after it returns from a mission at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Tech. Sgt. Chad Chisholm / Air Force)
They've been accused of being nothing more than video gamers: Operating unmanned aircraft from thousands of miles away while being able to see their families at the end of their shifts.
Some resent that drone pilots can get flight pay while never leaving the ground, but the Air Force recognizes the increasing reliance by combatant commanders on the drone community and is working to keep the pilots and sensor operators it has, while getting airmen from non-flight-rated backgrounds into the virtual cockpit.
For Tech. Sgt. Ryan, joining the drone community offers him a chance to get into the fight.
Ryan is assigned to the 588th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and is one of several airmen from non-flight-rated backgrounds who are learning to fly or operate the cameras on unmanned aircraft. Like all other airmen involved with unmanned aircraft, the Air Force allows him to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.
"I've been to Afghanistan twice and I've watched the planes take off and watched them come back empty and there's a certain satisfaction in that, but I think being the one who makes that plane empty is going to be a little bit more satisfying," said Ryan, who is training to be a sensor operator.
While he may not face physical danger, Ryan will have to contend with long hours and overnight shifts that take a toll on drone operators.
"It's really kind of a boring job to be vigilant on the same thing for days and days and days," Col. Hernando J. Ortega of the Air Force Surgeon General's Office said during a Feb. 3 speech in Washington. "It's really boring. It's kind of terrible. And maintaining relationships with their families — these were the kinds of things that they reported as stressful for them."
The stress is compounded when operators of unmanned aircraft, working from U.S. locations, try to spend time with their families during the day because they get fatigued, Ortega said.
"When you get the troops tired, there are psychological effects — fatigue decreases performance," he said.
But Ryan said the job satisfaction of becoming a sensor operator, along with opportunities for advancement, far outweigh the strains that will come with his new job. He also said he believes the transition will be fairly easy for him.
"My old career field, we worked a lot of 12-hour shifts, we were deployed six months out of every two years, TDY [temporary duty] three or four times a year, so my old career field was pretty high-speed in the fact that I was constantly going somewhere, doing something, working 12-hour shifts, preparing for inspections while also trying to get the training done for the pilots," he said.
But for Ryan and the other airmen training to join the drone community, the act of killing is about to go from abstract to intimate.
Career growth and retention
Drone operators are an essential but small community in the Air Force, which has about 1,035 pilots and 792 sensor operators, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. Those pilots and sensor operators are among the busiest airmen, and the demand for their skills is expected to continue.
One pilot in training, a first lieutenant named Travis who was previously a support officer, said he changed jobs in part for job security.
"Everybody else is shrinking, DoD [Defense Department]-wide; [drones] are booming," he said. "We're not reducing funding for that, so we shouldn't get force-shaved or [separated through a reduction in force] any time in the future."
Travis said he is excited at the prospect of going to the tip of the spear to help ground troops every day.
"I'm guaranteed, once I get into this career field, that I'm going to have an impact downrange," Travis said. "Protect the people on the ground: They're going to be calling us for help. We'll be there to deliver that, hopefully."
With 12 years in the service, nine of them as an enlisted airman, Travis hadn't intended to be a pilot until after his divorce last year.
"I'm like, ‘All right, I have nothing holding me back; no excuses, I'm going to do something with my life; now is the time to do it before I get tied down again,'" he said.
Another sensor operator trainee, a staff sergeant named Heather, decided to leave her job in maintenance because she wanted to feel like she was making a difference.
Being a sensor operator offers her the chance to see the impact of her work — literally.
She has no worries that she will be traumatized by watching as targets she is tracking get blown up. To her, that just means another U.S. or coalition service member's life has been saved.
The skills Travis and Heather are learning are highly sought after by the defense industry, which can offer drone operators a lot more money than the Air Force. That's why a recent study by the Rand Corp. suggested offering incentive pay to airmen in the drone community.
"Our analyses showed that it is more cost-effective to retain [sensor operators] using the current incentive pays than to train new personnel if civilian wages for [sensor operators] are 147 percent higher than the average available to Air Force enlisted members," researchers wrote. "While providing the current incentive pays to [drone] pilots is more costly overall than training new personnel, the cost increment is modest over the likely range of civilian wages."
The idea of offering incentive pay to drone operators has proved to be controversial, with some arguing that only traditional pilots should receive it, and others saying it is too costly in an austere budget environment, according to the study.
But some airmen told Air Force Times they support offering such pay because of the high demand for the career field and the conditions in which members of the field work.
"The mission requirements dictate the numbers," said retired Maj. Ken Stallings, an MQ-1B Predator instructor pilot, in an email. "To assert that [the drone community] is overemphasized is to assert that the mission is not understood by the theater and task force commanders. I suspect they would object to such claims."
The Rand researchers also suggested that the Air Force consider changing the physical requirements for becoming a drone pilot. Pilots in this career field must meet the same height and vision requirements as traditional pilots because at some point these pilots fly traditional aircraft. Height requirements are often driven by the size and configuration of traditional airplane cockpits, though researchers indicate that this could change. They noted that while this requirement is in place, many women have been excluded from the field.
Interestingly, drone pilots and sensor operators did not report that watching people get blown up caused them stress, Ortega said.
"That, I think, is really one of the major things, the major findings of the work so far, that ... the popularized idea of watching the combat was really not what was producing the most, just, day-to-day stress for these guys," he said.
Their stress stems from quality-of-life issues, such as working more than 50 hours per week.
"All the support for these guys is built on the same training schedule, 8 to 5, that the rest of the world is based on," Ortega said. "So the family support center closes, the clinic closes. Everything closes at 5 o'clock and there's nobody left for those guys who are working the other  hours of that day."
Airmen in the unmanned aircraft community often wrestle with doubts and second-guessing, Ortega said.
"They have more of an existential conflict," he said. "It's more a guilt feeling, perhaps, or did I make the right decision? Could I have — was this a friendly fire incident? Was it a bad outcome? Could I have done better?"
On April 6, 2011, a Predator mistakenly fired a missile at U.S. troops in Afghanistan, killing a Marine and a Navy corpsman.
"There's a whole lot of other issues inside of telewarfare, when you ask yourself questions like, how does that affect the Geneva Conventions?" Ortega said. "Who's a legal target? Is my identity a legal target? If you take away my security clearance and I can't go to work, did you just take me off the battlefield?"
An Air Force captain named Dave, who is making the transition from maintenance officer to drone pilot, said the training includes talking to airmen who have flown unmanned aircraft and who can prepare the trainees for the challenges ahead.
"We get a lot of mentoring from other pilots," he said. "We have a lot of experience here, guys who have been in a long time doing combat sorties, and they're a great resource for us."
Dave also has confidence in the people who will be feeding him information about his targets.
"We have a lot of other agencies that we're working with, whether we're supporting them from above with them on the ground or other agencies that we're coordinating with during the missions — not too concerned that amongst the agencies that we're working with or supporting that they will be able to make right decisions."
The Air Force is working to give airmen in the drone community more access to psychologists to help pilots and sensor operators who are having problems, said Col. Kent McDonald of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
"There was an issue at least with seeking mental health care, people could not go in and actually talk about the missions because there was nobody qualified — they didn't have the clearance — to allow them to hear any of the incidents that were going on," McDonald said. "So to that end, the [Surgeon General's] office has got a few people now qualified with the correct clearance so that they can work with these members."
Just because airmen in the drone community are not downrange doesn't mean they don't suffer stress, McDonald said. Deployed airmen typically seek mental health care for problems within their unit or issues back home, not because of combat.
Wayne Chappelle, a senior aeromedical clinical psychologist at the school, compared airmen in the drone community to police and other people who have to make life-or-death decisions but get to see their families after work.
"You have medical personnel, who go to work every day, and they go to the ER; some days, the ER is pretty slow and boring and [in] other cases, the ER can be interrupted with moments of intense adrenaline lifesaving sort of operations, but I don't think it would be fair to say that medical personnel shouldn't be stressed out because they get to go home at the end of the day," Chappelle said.
What makes operators of unmanned aircraft different from police and other emergency responders is they get inside the lives of the insurgents whom they constantly observe for weeks and even longer, an Air Force official told Air Force Times.
The official, who did not want to be identified, recalled one situation in which drone operators observed a bomb-maker for weeks to find out who was financing the bombs and providing explosive materials.
"We watched him wake up in the morning; we watched him leave for work in his vehicle; we tracked him to where he was building these weapons; we watched him eat lunch; we watched him go home and play soccer in his yard with his family — with his two little girls," the official said. "We watched him live with his wife, watched him sleep, we watched him sleep; we watched him get up in the middle of the night, go to the back of his house and build weapons."
So the drone operators knew this man well when the time came to kill him.
"We've been watching him for so long that we have that part of the history with our operators, who are having the thought in their head of, ‘I don't care what you think of this individual, he does have two daughters; I have seen him with his family,'" the official said.
Those who say being a drone operator is like playing a video game from 8,000 miles away are sadly mistaken, the official said.
"You are 18 inches away from 32-inch, high-definition combat, where you are in contact [by headset with] the guys on the ground," the official said. "You are there. You are there. You fly with them, you support them and a person you are tasked with supporting gets engaged, hurt, possibly killed, it's a deeply, deeply emotional event. It's not detached. It's not a video game. And it's certainly not 8,000 miles away."