Just don't call him a drone pilot. The preferred nomenclature for these vehicles nowadays is RPA, for Remotely Piloted Aircraft. The word drone conjures images of brainless bots on autopilot, an implication not especially appreciated by the three person crew of pilot, sensor operator, and intelligence analyst typically tasked with the supervision of these relatively new additions to the military’s arsenal.
Classrooms at Holloman AFB are filled with recruits soon deploying to virtual front-lines in Nevada, South Dakota, and New Mexico. These are boom times in the RPA business, as trainees feed a growing appetite for a technology granting its wielders the power to stalk and strike targets with sanitized political, financial, and military risk. In uncontested airspace, this advantage is akin to playing a video game with a cheat code that nobody else knows. Incidentally, the number of strikes authorized by the President has spiked to 350 since Obama took office, up from 50 under George W. Bush, with an estimated 400 civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen, according to a January report from the Council on Foreign Relations. But the lion's share of drone duty consists of quieter, more shadowy work, hour after hour of monotonous ISR: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
REMOTE CONTROL STAKEOUT
Like cops on their beat, RPA operators spend days or weeks lying in wait. From ergonomic chairs in ground control stations - essentially souped-up shipping containers parked on base - they coordinate with ground intel to identify suspects, then track their targets through high-powered-zoom lenses controlled by a sensor operator. The Air Force has even begun deploying 9-camera sensors on Reaper drones nicknamed the Gorgon Stare, which are capable of streaming full motion video over a 4km radius with enough resolution to see facial expressions. Said Mike, "It might be little things like a group of kids throwing rocks at goats, or at each other, or an old man startled by a barking dog…but you get a sense of daily life. I've been on the same shift for a month and you learn the patterns. Like, I'll know at 5am this guy is gonna go outside and take a shit. I've seen a lotta' dudes take shits."
This perpetual voyeurism preludes other kinds of realizations, "another time we followed this guy outside his house for half an hour, and all he did was go scoop water from a stream…seeing that just made it sink-in how we live worlds apart," said Mike. While physically separated from danger by thousands of miles, psychologically the multiplex of visual and audio data feeding an operator's LCD screens can put them much closer to the realities. Holloman AFB even has counselors and chaplains on base to give support for cases of PTSD. Asked about feeling any sense of attachment to his targets after long hours of scrutiny, Mike replied, "Whether it gives me empathy or sympathy or just familiarity I'm not sure. We compartmentalize the job like anyone else."
When asked to push the button, pilots insist the distance does little to desensitize them to real life consequences. Ryan, a Captain who used to fly the B-52, said, "Oh yeah, you still get buck-fever, you know you're about to do some damage. The heart rate goes up…but we do things to calm the nerves. The main thing is repetition, so whether it's a training weapon or 2000 pound laser-guided missile it doesn't feel different." RPA pilots wear flight suits during missions and simulations, which serves to reinforce the gravity of their profession.
The pilots feel best about their jobs when helping compatriots on the ground see through the fog of war, while hovering indefinitely above an area on “overwatch” duty to scan with infrared for IEDs or ambushes. The infrared cameras can even detect heat signatures from car engines to look for telltale signs of an IED. There is massive demand for overwatch work, as commanders now feel blind without it. And the operators aren't the only ones watching. The drone's video feed can be viewed on laptops by ground commanders, intelligence analysts in Langley, or suits at Joint Special Operations Command. It’s almost like a stakeout via Skype.
Mike described an incident when employees of a private security agency in Afghanistan were dressed in local garb and mistaken for Taliban. The joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground called in a Reaper strike, but after examining the area through the drone's sensors the Major noticed the men were openly brandishing their weapons, behavior suggesting they were possible friendlies. He decided to withhold ordinance and instead asked the ground forces to approach with Humvees to investigate further, where they confirmed his assumption. He was awarded a Pilot Safety Award of Distinction, and months later had an unlikely run-in with the millionaire owner of the Four Horseman agency - the firm employing the contractors he was initially asked to strike - at a local shop in Ruidoso, NM. The CEO allegedly shook his hand, told him "thanks for not killing my guys,” and gave him a company hat.
An award or pat on the back cannot, however, replace the blood buzz of flying at mach speed in combat zones. Many early recruits to the program flew bombers, jets or cargo planes in Iraq or Afghanistan before being "asked" to transfer to drone duty under the impression they could reassign to a base of their choosing after putting in time on RPA rotations. But as demand for their new skill set increased, the timelines became moving targets, and some have been flying drones so long they would need expensive retraining to fly regular aircraft again.
"We're overpaid, underworked, and bored. What the Air Force doesn't get is that they can't throw money at us to make us happy. I didn't even know how much a pilot made when I enlisted. I just wanted to fly," said Ryan. Another former pilot named Brad, who flew the B1 bomber in Afghanistan and is now an RPA instructor at Holloman, compared it to "being transferred from marketing to the accounting department." Ryan says pilots in their predicament have taken to calling themselves the 'lost generation,' and many have become resigned to the notion that if they stay in the Air Force they might never feel g-forces in a real cockpit again.
"It's tough working night shifts watching your buddies do great things in the field while you're turning circles in the sky doing ISR," said Ryan.
In a sense, they are range-bound thrill-jockeys now managing an adrenaline deficit. The pilots and instructors interviewed for this story - all bachelors in their early thirties - mostly blow off steam in typical ways; playing Call of Duty on Xbox Live, watching Archer on Netflix, practicing a musical instrument, taking snowboarding trips to Angel Fire resort, making home brewed beer, smoking Lucky Strikes, et cetera. But they also do things like fly high performance complex airplanes, ride Harley's, and take explosive propane tanks out into the middle of the desert to use for AR-15 target practice.
At Creech AFB outside of Las Vegas - another major hub of drone activity - the pilots surely have more extracurricular options, but in a backwater town like Alamogordo with fifty churches and two bars, there are only so many ways to kill time; this is the same town that made headlines in 2001 when a local church made a bonfire out of Harry Potter novels. The habitat is better suited to retirees, veterans, and truckers, with its numerous bingo parlors, VFW outposts, and vast array of fast food chains and gas stations. Brad described the woes of trying to meet single women on Match.com - even expanding his online search filter out 60 miles to include the next major town, Las Cruces - and painted a bleak picture. "If we can do this job from anywhere, why can't they just put the base in Hawaii?,” opined Mike, only half-joking.
This isn't to say RPA pilots are a disgruntled lot. They all see value in what they're doing, and who doesn't complain about their job to some degree. But for the guys who followed their Top Gun daydreams only to find themselves landlocked in air-conditioned containers, it requires an adjustment of expectations. By contrast, the younger crop of recruits won't carry the same baggage. Some male and female operators currently training at Holloman have logged zero hours of actual flight time, though Ryan believes "the video game generation may have advantages in some respects." And there are undoubtedly plenty of pilots happy to raise their families inside the sanguine suburban confines of an Air Force base without needing to deploy again. It's hard to beat making a 7,500 mile commute in just a few minutes.
LATENCY and LAG
When a drone operator presses a button or tugs on the throttle, the data is bounced off a network of satellites before reaching the drone's "brain,” resulting in a few seconds of lag delay between input and response. For this reason takeoff and landing is handled by a team with line of sight to the aircraft to minimize crashes. These "launch and recovery" crews are stationed in places like Kandahar or Saudi Arabia, and once the drone reaches stable altitude, they hand-off control to operators at bases like Holloman or Creech to manage the mission until it’s time to land. Serious infrastructure must be set up in proximity to where the drones physically operate: runway needs paving, satellite links need positioning, fuel needs transporting, and host-states need diplomatic coddling.
There is lag in peripheral areas, too, as with most new technologies. The Predator and Reaper - which are manufactured by San Diego based defense contractor General Atomics - come equipped with hundreds of pages of documentation, like any new car or household appliance, and pilots complain of poorly written user manuals that have created or compounded serious headaches. Ryan said, "The documentation is just off the wall…it's been written by engineers to sell a product, not by pilots. It's like, if I want to turn my parking brake on, I have to dig through 6-7 menus to find the right command. In the cockpit, I reach up and the button is right there." Brad described an incident years ago where they lost control of a Predator mid-flight and had to shoot down the hapless drone. In the early days, accidents were more common - at $12.5M a pop to taxpayers, a number still only a fraction the cost of a manned fighter jet - but Ryan says reliability for Reapers is now more "in lockstep with the F-16.”
Clearer legal and moral frameworks for drone trade craft are also still catching up with the technology. Predator drones have been in operation since the early days of the Iraq war, but public debate has only recently taken center stage, after a Justice Department memo leaked in January defining conditions under which an American citizen can be targeted by a drone strike. Whether increased media attention will impact actual policy remains to be seen, but as the public educates itself on the costs and benefits of drone warfare, recent documents discovered by the Associated Press in Mali show that potential targets are also educating themselves. Papers found in a building previously occupied by Al-Qaeda fighters in Timbuktu reveal tactics used by militants to evade detection from drones, such as “spreading the reflective pieces of glass on a car or on the roof of the building…hide under thick trees…formation of fake gatherings such as using dolls and statues.” This reveals a unique kind of cat and mouse arms race, with one side relying on ever-advancing technology as the other continually refines its guerilla guile to stay in the shadows.
The floodgates for non-military usage of unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to start opening in 2015, when the FAA is scheduled to integrate UAVs into updated air traffic control regulations. As the pipeline of students in the Air Force's RPA program expands, future demand for experienced operators is waiting in the wings at police departments, border control agencies, and security firms. Other countries are also building up their drone infrastructure, such as the UK, Germany, France, Israel, and Turkey. Experienced American operators are likely to become a valuable asset, and the prospect of a smooth parachute into a six-figure salary in the private sector is comforting for some pilots, but for the guys who just want to get back into a real cockpit, harder choices will have to be made. Ryan said, "some guys are sacrificing their careers just to fly jets again, or taking pay cuts to go fly commercial."
You have to drive an hour from Alamogordo to El Paso, TX to reach the nearest commercial airport, and just a few stop lights outside of downtown Alamogordo the scenery begins to resemble rural ghetto. Plastic grocery bags entangled on shrubs rustle in the wind, chickens squawk from tumbleweed trailer parks, and kids on low-rider bikes swerve parabolically across dirt roads. So when the windows tremble in the middle of the night from the growl of engines overhead it's a safe bet that Holloman AFB is the origin or destination. It might be a C-17 cargo plane returning with battle weary troops from overseas, an old F-117 stealth fighter coming in for retirement, or a new model of drone testing its infrared sensors.
It is strange to imagine that on the other side of the earth, an old man in rubber sandals might be hobbling through a landscape not so alien from this one, perhaps walking miles to collect water from a river or shepherd his goats, all while a team of RPA operators here in this desert outpost track his every step on video feeds in between smoke breaks, scanning for symptoms of malice. Maybe, the old man will hear the familiar high-pitched whirring overhead and feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise, turning his gaze towards the heavens just in time to catch a glimpse of dark metal streak across the clouds, before quietly cursing the invisible spectators under his breath; a transgression undetectable by the drone’s sensors, at least for now.
Feb 22nd, 2013