Drone Pilots Find it Hard to Balance Warfighting With Personal Lives

A new GAO report highlights the stresses that UAV pilots face.

A Remotely Piloted Aircraft training simulation at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

U.S. Air Force drone pilots are overworked, according to a report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO report, “Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Unmanned Aerial System Pilots,” notes that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) are so important to battlefield commanders that the Air Force has tripled the number of drone pilots since 2008. At the same time, their workload has increased. (The report was conducted, in part, to study the working conditions for drone pilots and how they affect quality of life.)

The UAV pilots—who fly the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper, and the RQ-4 Global Hawk at Beale, Cannon, and Creech Air Force bases—were interviewed over the course of a year. While the pilots found their work rewarding, they said that being deployed “on station” (living at home and reporting to work on base) rather than “in theater” “negatively affected their quality of life, as it was challenging for them to balance their warfighting responsibilities with their personal lives for extended periods of time.” 

The RPA pilots also spend far longer in their assignments than do other airmen. Those interviewed for the study said that Air Force assignments usually last three to four years. But many of the RPA pilots have been in their assignments for more than six years. Some of the pilots interviewed “noted that they would prefer to deploy-in-theater for six months with a clear end point and be separated from their family and friends rather than be deployed-on-station for three or more years.” 

Other sources of stress include long hours and rotating shift work (which not only caused sleep problems, but affected the pilots’ ability to spend time with friends and family). Pilots who had previously flown manned aircraft were told their RPA assignments were temporary, but due to demand, the Air Force had to keep them in RPA assignments indefinitely. 

UAV pilots are also promoted less frequently than manned-aircraft pilots. One unit commander said that “some in the Air Force view flying RPAs negatively, resulting in a stigma.” Perhaps because of this reason, the Air Force has not met its recruiting goals in 2012 and 2013 for RPA pilots.  

Until 2010, the Air Force relied solely on manned-aircraft pilots to fly RPAs; that year, an RPA “pilot career field” was established for officers who were not qualified to fly manned aircraft. As current RPA pilots reach the end of their service commitments (fiscal year 2017), the Air Force may have to look at other groups, such as enlisted or civilian personnel, to meet its targets.

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