Piloting Drones Is the Worst Job in the Military
The Pentagon cut corners to find pilots and instructors
by MATTHEW GAULT
American military power in the 21st century relies on the mighty drone. The flying robots watch America’s enemies from the skies — and sometimes blow them apart with Hellfire missiles.
There’s a logic to using drones. Putting a robot in harm’s way is a lot better than putting an actual person in the same place.
America can always build another drone. It’s a lot harder to replace a good pilot.
The Pentagon has spent billions to expand its drone fleet. By July 2013, the U.S. military as a whole had bought more than 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles of various types.
The U.S. Army and the Air Force both need a lot of pilots and technicians to keep the drones flying — literally tens of thousands of people altogether — but it hasn’t been easy filling those job slots. Worse, the two branches started cutting corners during training, according to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, a congressionally-mandated watchdog.
Often, the Army wasn’t even sure if its pilots were qualified to fly drones. On top of that, it was approving new flight instructors who haven’t finished their own training.
There’s a lot of reasons for the shortage of good pilots. The most obvious is budget cutbacks across the military.
To get around the forced cuts, known as “sequestration,” the Pentagon has employed some tricky accounting to keep the cash flowing to its pet projects — such as the F-35 Lightning II. Personnel levels have also fallen across all branches.
But the less obvious answer is that no one wants to pilot drones. It’s an awful job where a pilot — instead of sitting in a cockpit — sits inside a metal box in front of a computer screen for hours. Drone pilots are overworked, over-stressed and pissed off.
No wonder the Pentagon can’t find good pilots.
In May 2015, the GAO released its most recent report on the sorry state of America’s drone force. Concerned about drone pilots’ lackluster training, the agency talked to pilots and instructors and pored over the training logs and materials.
The findings were scary.
“Most Army [drone] pilots are not completing all of their unit training,” the GAO explained. Further, “the Army does not have visibility over whether [drone] pilots … have completed training.”
The Army uses three kinds of drones, the RQ-7 Shadow, MQ-5 Hunter and MQ-1C Gray Eagle. Potential operators spent eight weeks learning the basics of flight and another 12 to 25 weeks specializing in one of the types.
After that, they were supposed to fly at least 24 training hours every year. One Army operator the GAO talked to said he had only flown 36 hours in the last three years.
Other pilots told the watchdog that they didn’t have enough training equipment and that their unit commanders just didn’t understand drones. Since officers routinely pulled pilots off of training duty to perform other tasks, they could never find the time to finish their required practice sessions.
Army brass often received reports about the readiness levels of its drone force. The reports told them about individual units’ staffing levels and the state of their training equipment.
But “[Army officials] stated that these reports do not provide any information on the readiness levels of the [drone] pilots … because the Army does not require these reports to include this information,” the GAO reported.
The Air Force was no better. The flying branch’s pilots were so overloaded that they don’t have time to finish required training.
“According to Air Force officials,” the GAO wrote. “Some Air Force UAS pilots have not completed their continuation training because they spend most of their time conducting operational missions due to shortages of UAS pilots and high workloads.”
“UAS” stands for unmanned aerial systems, one of many official terms for drones and the control stations on the ground.
Pilots need to train a little bit every year. It keeps them abreast of technological changes to their machines, operational changes to their missions and refreshes them on the basics.
But the GAO found the situation had gotten so bad that the flying branch allowed the operators to count real missions toward their training. This still wasn’t enough to meet the requirements.
Then there were the instructors. Both the Army and the Air Force had trouble finding qualified drone pilots to train more drone pilots.
The programs had expanded so fast and demand was so large that the military couldn’t keep up. So the Pentagon started to cut corners and instead pushed instructors through its training programs.
The Army routinely granted waivers — which allowed troops to skip portions of their training — to potential drone instructors. In 2014, almost half of all Army drone instructors had received such a waiver.
The Air Force has long had morale problems with its drone pilots. When the killer robots first took to the skies, the flying branch pulled pilots out of traditional planes and shoved them into metal boxes with computer screens and joysticks.
The pilots worked long shifts, sometimes 10 or 12 hours long, and only received one day off for every six days they worked. The operators weren’t happy, morale sank and in 2006, members of one unit even booed their commanding officer during a meeting.
Morale has improved since then, but it’s still not great. Drone pilots continue to work long hours and often don’t know the purpose behind the missions they fly. They sweat in little metal trailers, kill from thousands of miles away, then clock out and go home.
In traditional war, troops have the benefit of context. War is Hell, but at least it’s consistent.
Every day is about staying alive, finishing the mission and watching over your fellow soldiers. Drone pilots don’t have that routine.
No wonder then that drone pilots experience rates of post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots in active combat zones. It’s become such a foregone conclusion that being a drone pilot sucks that Hollywood has crafted movies around this basic theme.
First screened in 2014, the film Good Kill casts Ethan Hawke as U.S. Air Force Maj. Thomas Egan, a pilot who started flying drones because the military didn’t need him to fly conventional planes anymore. Egan loses faith in the mission, fights with his family and butts heads with his commanding officer and the video game nerds the Air Force recruited to fill out the ranks of its drone forces.
This is the narrative now — piloting killer robots is awful and no one wants to do it. It’s a story born out by the reality.
After the GAO released its findings in 2015, the Air Force announced plans to open up more drone jobs to private contractors. In addition, the service tried to improve things for its own drone crews, including paying out additional bonuses.
But by 2016, the Pentagon had thousands of drones and was still struggling to find enough people to keep them in the air.