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Report: High Levels Of 'Burnout' In U.S. Drone Pilots

Dec 18, 2011
Originally published on December 19, 2011 9:38 am

Around 1,100 Air Force pilots fly remotely piloted aircraft, or drones. These planes soar over Iraq or Afghanistan, but the pilots sit at military bases back in the United States.

A new Pentagon study shows that almost 30 percent of drone pilots surveyed suffer from what the military calls "burnout." It's the first time the military has tried to measure the psychological impact of waging a "remote-controlled war."

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, shows that 29 percent of the drone pilots surveyed said they were burned out and suffered from high levels of fatigue. The Air Force doesn't consider this a dangerous level of stress.

However, 17 percent of active duty drone pilots surveyed are thought to be "clinically distressed." The Air Force says this means the pilots' stress level has crossed a threshold where it's now affecting the pilots' work and family. A large majority of the pilots said they're not getting any counseling for their stress.

Reasons For Pilot Stress

The Air Force cites several reasons for the elevated stress levels among drone pilots. First is the dual nature of this work: flying combat operations or running surveillance in a war zone, and then, after a shift, driving a few miles home in places like Nevada or New Mexico, where a whole different set of stressors await. The Air Force says switching back and forth between such different realities presents unique psychological challenges.

Second is the issue of demand. Drones have proven to be the key U.S. military tool in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. military officials say over the past decade, there has been constant demand for more pilots to fly these platforms. While training for drone pilots has increased, there are still not enough to meet demand, and pilots end up working longer than expected shifts, keeping these planes in the air 24 hours a day.

The particular nature of drone warfare is also a contributor to the higher stress levels. While the number is very small, officials who conducted the study said they did encounter a handful of pilots who suffered symptoms of PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — directly linked to their experience running combat operations. Unlike traditional pilots flying manned aircraft in a war zone, the pilots operating remote drones often stare at the same piece of ground in Afghanistan or Iraq for days, sometimes months. They watch someone's pattern of life, see people with their families, and then they can be ordered to shoot.

Col. Kent McDonald, who co-authored the report, says the Air Force tries to recruit people who are emotionally well-adjusted, "family people" with "good values."

An 'Existential Crisis'

"When they have to kill someone," he says, "or where they are involved in missions and then they either kill them or watch them killed, it does cause them to rethink aspects of their life."

McDonald describes it as an "existential crisis."

Air Force officials say they are putting plans in motion to try to address some of the causes of the elevated stress levels in drone pilots. Right now, there are 57 drones flying in 57 different positions in the world at any given moment. That number surged this summer to 60, but the Air Force is going to cap the number at 57 for the next 12 months.

The cap is meant as a kind of "time out" to rethink how the drone pilots are being used. The service will use that time to re-evaluate shifts, train more drone crews to meet demand, and figure out ways to help pilots navigate between their professional and personal lives.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today we're going to learn about an unlikely consequence of modern warfare. The question: Can a pilot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, without ever getting into a cockpit? The Air Force now says yes. These days some 1,100 Air Force pilots fly drones, remotely piloted aircraft. The drones soar over places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the pilots control them from military bases back here in the U.S.

A new study shows almost 30 percent of drone pilots surveyed suffer from what the military calls burnout. NPR's Rachel Martin got an advance copy of that report and joins us in our studio to talk about the psychological effects of war by remote control. Good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And now, burnout - that is the military's term. What exactly does it mean?

MARTIN: Well, the Air Force says these pilots feel overworked, stretched too thin and fatigued, what you might associate with burnout. But important to note, the Air Force doesn't consider this to be a dangerous level of stress - but they are concerned about the overall well-being of these folks and their morale level.

But 17 percent of active duty drone pilots surveyed are thought to be, quote, "clinically distressed" - which is much more concerning. This is where the stress level has actually crossed a threshold where it's now affecting the work that these people do and their family life and it's a red flag for the military. And a large majority of these pilots said they're not getting any counseling for their stress level.

MONTAGNE: What is it in particular about operating a drone remotely from back in the States, thousands of miles from the action, that's causing this level of stress and even potential PTSD?

MARTIN: Well a lot of this is about the dual nature of this work. It's very unique. These folks are flying combat operations in a war zone or doing surveillance. And then after they finish their shift, they go home to their families in a place like Nevada or New Mexico and they have to live in that very different dynamic, which comes with different sets of expectations. This can be very stressful, having to switch back and forth from these worlds.

There's also the monotony, Renee. Remember, these pilots are operating planes from computer terminals at Air Force bases in the U.S. Many of these drones are used for surveillance, so they're just watching targets for hours at a time, which is monotonous and adds to the stress.

Also, there has been constant demand for drones and drone pilots in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They cannot train enough pilots to meet demand, so they're working really long shifts, unpredictable work schedules. And remember, these drones are up in the air for 24 hours at a time, so these are round-the-clock shifts.

MONTAGNE: What about the mission itself? I mean what these pilots do, partly at least, is to conduct air strikes. I mean they kill people from afar. Did that come out in this survey?

MARTIN: Yes, officials that conducted the study said they actually encountered a handful of pilots who suffered symptoms of PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder - directly linked to their experience running combat operations. It's important to point out here, these pilots can be looking at the same piece of ground for days, sometimes months.

So in a way they're closer to the battlefield than regular pilots. I mean they can watch someone's pattern of life, see them with their family, and then they can be ordered to shoot. Colonel Kent McDonald co-authored the report, and here's how he described it.

COLONEL KENT MCDONALD: We try to select people who are well adjusted, and when they have to kill someone or when they're involved in missions where they are observing people over long periods of time and then they - they either kill them or they see them killed, it does cause them to rethink aspects of their life and it can be bothersome.

MARTIN: Bothersome to say the least. I mean nightmares, stress that makes it impossible for them to do their jobs. But again, we should point out the survey shows that this is a very small percentage of the force.

MONTAGNE: And what does the Air Force plan to do about it?

MARTIN: They're going to reevaluate, take the next 12 months and see if they can reconfigure some of these shifts, give shorter rotations, because this is definitely the future. This kind of warfare is not going away, and they're going to need more and more of these kinds of pilots, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin. Thanks very much.

MARTIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.