The Curious, Stressful Life of a US Military Drone Pilot
It takes a certain type of person to "go to war," and then go to dinner with the kids.
All images by the author
In a hangar at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, a 23-year-old airman named Matthew stands in front of a plane he's flown dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over Afghanistan, Iraq, perhaps Yemen or the Philippines, even parts of Europe. Except, he's never physically been over any of those places, and he's never been inside the plane.
Matthew, a drone pilot, has been on the front lines for the last three years without traveling more than 20 minutes from the nearest Walmart. His drone, the Global Hawk, is a surveillance and support plane—it isn't armed, but it's flying over many of the same places Predator drones are, and then, really, a few more.
"You can't find a conflict where there's not a Global Hawk nearby," Paul Bauman, commander of Matthew's flight, told me.
That means there's plenty of work for Matthew and his fellow pilots, and it also means that on Monday, he could be flying in Iraq near an Islamic State hotspot, Tuesday he could be playing basketball with his friends, and Wednesday he might be in Afghanistan. Thursday, he could be in Syria or Somalia or anywhere, really.
In most cases, Matthew or someone else takes control of a Global Hawk that is stationed halfway across the world. In others, he flies the ones located on base—they can fly from here to near the southern tip of South America and back without refueling.
Earlier this week, the USAF allowed me to talk to Bauman and several other airmen involved in the United States' drone support program. Though the interviews were spontaneous and not pre-vetted, my tour of the base was tightly scheduled and tightly controlled.
I agreed to use the pilots' first names only in exchange for a look at what is, probably, the world's most extreme office job.
"They leave their house, drive three minutes, and walk into a metal box and it's like walking into central command or Pacific command or another theatre," Bauman said. "You fly your mission and walk out of the box, and you're back in North Dakota."
In other words, Matthew and his fellow pilots have no idea what conflict they're going to be involved in, or where that conflict is going to be, until hours before they're scheduled to fly. They are briefed, obviously, and Matthew told me that he "absolutely" knows what country he's flying in at any given moment, but noted that he could work with one team one day and not work with them again for months.
"It takes a certain kind of person to say 'I just had dinner, but I'm ready to go,'" Matthew told me. "I'm in a position where i could do harm to someone on the ground or not provide that support someone needs. Their life is on the line. We take it very seriously, and we come in with our game face on."
Maybe a small part of that seriousness comes from standing next to the Global Hawk, which is far larger and flies at far higher altitudes than the Predator. Though it has no pilot, if you hollowed out the inside, you could throw plenty of people in there; it's half the size of a Boeing 747, with a 116-foot wingspan. It's far larger than I had imagined. It's black and sleek and it can fly halfway around the world on one trip.
And most of those missions are flown out of here, in North Dakota. The base, in fact, doesn't fly any manned missions and hasn't since 2010. Bauman says that when it became clear drones were the future of the Air Force, the base wanted to stay on the cutting edge and transitioned to flying drones exclusively.
At the moment, it's the only place in the United States where the classic Predator drone, the newer MQ-9 Predator (or "Reaper" drone), and the Global Hawk are all flown.
So now, the front lines of the various wars the United States has found itself engaged in extends out to Grand Forks, mentally, at least. What does that mean for people like Matthew and two other drone pilots I spoke to, Ryan and Brad? Both of them said that, well, it's kinda weird that they don't know what conflict they're going to be involved in until just hours beforehand.
You come home and have dinner with your wife and family and, well, you can't tell them anything about what happened.
Well, who the hell knows. Just as the military has experimented with the mental health of thousands of troops overseas, it's now experimenting with the mental health of airmen on its domestic bases, ones who might be with their spouses and children during the day and engaged in war at night.
In fact, a study published last year by the Department of Defense suggested that drone pilots suffer from post traumatic stress disorder in much the same way as soldiers on the ground. An Air Force survey initially found that they experience anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and nine other psychiatric disorders at rates higher than those with other Air Force support roles, but once adjusted for age and other factors, the rates were similar. Other studies are ongoing.
"In some ways it's harder. If you have a tough day—for whatever reason—all that stuff, the mission, is classified," one former Air National Guard airman, who helped command a Predator flight, told me. "So, you come home and have dinner with your wife and family and, well, you can't tell them anything about what happened."
Ryan said that he's a "step back" from the front lines because he's not actually pushing the button to fire a missile. The Predator commander told me that many of those pilots take solace in the fact that they're merely following flight orders, not making the call to pull the trigger, a decision made overseas.
But what if he were? There are hundreds of other pilots who do, in fact, discharge weapons and then return home to their families, day after day, year after year.
Bauman says that all drone pilots are given the same access to counseling and mental health support as all other soldiers, but aren't given any sort of specific, specialized support.
Talking to Matthew, it seems as though he understands the gravity of the work that he's doing.
"It's very stressful. You can have a 90 percent slow-paced, average mission. Then, if something goes wrong, it's game on," he said. "I'm in charge of a very expensive aircraft over a bunch of people who could die. It's in no way as trivial as a video game."