The number of drone pilots flying for the U.S. Air Force has more than tripled since 2008, leading to concerns about more stress, longer hours and other difficult working conditions faced by pilots.
A U.S. Government Accountability report released earlier this year urged the Air Force to address a number of those issues, including high wash-out rates and the effects of pilots performing year-round missions from a base near their home as opposed to short-term overseas deployments.
The Springfield Air National Guard base, mentioned in the GAO report, is one of eight active-duty bases in the U.S. that fly unmanned aircraft. Pilots operating from the Springfield base fly the MQ-1 Predator, conducting armed reconnaissance and a variety of other missions overseas.
The nature of the drone mission is different from what a traditional fighter pilot faced just a few years ago, said Rick Lohnes, a retired F-16 fighter pilot and former Springfield base commander.
“You might fly a very stressful mission for several hours and at the end of the day you’ve got to go to the soccer game with the kids,” said Lohnes, now a county commissioner.
According to the report, Air Force officials partially agreed with the GAO recommendation, but believe many of those concerns could be alleviated by increasing staffing levels.
Recruiting drone pilots is difficult for missions so secret they can’t be talked about with family members and other units at the base, said Col. Bryan Davis, commander of the wing’s 178th Operations Group.
“When we flew the F-16s, we would have a stack of applications ready of people who wanted to fly,” Davis said of recruits. “That’s not the case anymore. It’s hard to get the message out.”
Fighting a war from home
Fighting a war from home is a new concept, the GAO report says, noting many pilots also often conduct the same mission from a U.S. base for three or more years, as opposed to a more limited deployment overseas of a few months at a time.
Modern military drone pilots spend shifts in stressful situations that can include tracking, and perhaps killing, designated targets. Springfield crews operate a Predator somewhere in the world 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
But while more traditional pilots would return to a military base with their peers, drone pilots come home to their families at the end of the day, where they can’t discuss what occurred just a few hours ago.
The 178th does a good job of making sure mental health and other resources are available to local crews, Lohnes said.
At the Springfield base, pilots are in a better situation than some other units due to a number of factors, including proximity to health professionals and other programs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Davis said.
The unit also has a director of psychological health available to speak to any crew members and regular training sessions to encourage crew members to assist their peers.
At the same time, Davis said local crews are justifiably proud of the work they’re doing to save lives and support troops on the ground.
He recalled one instance early in his career as a drone pilot when a lieutenant on the ground asked how long the Predator would be in the air, because that additional resource watching the perimeter meant the troops could sleep that night.
“That’s a huge deal to us,” Davis said.
The GAO report made several recommendations to improve morale and recruitment of drone pilots, including:
• Establishing minimum crew ratios.
• Developing a recruitment and retention strategy tailored to the specific needs of drone pilots.
• Analyzing the effects of on-station deployments to determine whether there are negative effects on the quality of life of pilots.
According to the report, the Air Force agreed with several of the recommendations, including updating crew ratios and developing a new recruiting strategy.
It partially agreed with others, including evaluating whether to allow enlisted personnel to become pilots, and studying the effects on pilots of conducting missions from home.
The military has made strides to address mental health issues for soldiers, and that will continue, said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
“While the Department of Defense has made great strides in the way it treats these invisible wounds of war, the steady persistence of this problem demonstrates the need for more action,” Portman said. “Our brave men and women in uniform, including those at 178th Fighter Wing, deserve a comprehensive and effective approach to mental health that covers service members throughout the duration of their service, as well as during their transition to civilian life.”
F-16 was a recruiting tool
Identifying enough recruits to join the guard and Air Force will be increasingly important as the demand for Remotely Piloted Aircraft missions expands, according to the GAO.
Between 2008 and 2013, the number of pilots flying drones in the Air Force has spiked from about 400 to about 1,350 as the demand for intelligence and surveillance missions has increased.
A 2013 report by the Brookings Institution led to similar conclusions and argued that trend is likely to continue. The Brookings report said as many as 350 more drone pilots will be needed by 2017 to keep up with projected demand.
“In order for the Air Force to stay innovative and relevant in the furtherance of unparalleled RPA operations, it must take a new approach and re-evaluate the personnel programs that most effectively contribute to this vital mission,” the Brookings report stated.
The biggest challenge facing the Springfield Guard unit is finding enough recruits to meet that ever-increasing demand for unmanned aircraft pilots, Davis said. The local Guard has always relied heavily on the local area for personnel.
The Springfield unit has a long history of operating fighter jets, including the F-16, until that mission departed as part of a Base Realignment and Closure process.
The F-16s themselves were a recruiting tool as they soared above the base, said Davis, himself a former F-16 pilot for more than a decade.
But because of the secrecy of the new missions, pilots operating the Predator aren’t allowed to reveal their names to the public. Davis is the only Predator pilot in Springfield allowed to be identified.
There are about six recruits in the pipeline for training now, Davis said.
“You go to the average person, and they have no idea we’re even out here,” Davis said.
Guard seeks work-life balance
The local Guard is careful to ensure mental health and other resources are available for pilots who now have to balance the stress of fighting a war during the day, and resuming a normal life at home once their shift ends.
The GAO report pointed to a 2008 Air Force study that established a crew ratio of 10 to 1 for Predator Squadrons, calling for a ratio of 10 pilots to sustain a Predator for 24 hours. That report was also used as a basis for the MQ-9 Reaper, because both aircraft have similar requirements.
However, the GAO report pointed out that crew ratios across the Air Force have fluctuated between 7-to-1 and 8.5-to-1 and at times as low as 6-to-1, meaning the workload is often performed by fewer pilots working more hours.
The low crew ratios can also lead to less time for training and professional development, as well as more difficulty for promotions.
In Springfield, Davis said the 178th is typically at a 10-to-1 ratio.
Some pilots are full-time, but others are traditional guardsmen who are part-time and are only required to work one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
The goal is to foster a good work environment that causes them to want to continue with the Guard after their military commitment is up, Davis said.
While it’s not always possible, Davis said crews in Springfield typically stick to a 40-hour week, allowing for regular days off so crews can spend time with their families.
Shifts are also rotated monthly to ensure a crew or individual isn’t always stuck with an overnight shift that makes it difficult to spend time at home. Shifts are also staffed to ensure pilots and sensor operators fly in stretches of four to 5½ hours to allow time for training and other necessary duties.
“My goal is I want people to like being here,” Davis said. “I want people to want to be part of the unit.”
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