War by Remote Control: How Drone Pilots Experience Combat



For years, Lt. Col. Bruce Black’s morning commute consisted of a 45 minute drive to his job at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. It was, as he puts it, just enough time to put on his “game face.” Black, a retired Air Force pilot, was part of a squadron that flew military drones in combat areas in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It is very strange. You get up in the morning and kiss your family goodbye.” Black said. “And the next thing you know, as soon as you step in the squadron, you’re on a war footing.”

Black cites the disconnect between military and civilian life, and the rapid transition between both, as one of the difficult aspects of the job.

A Defense Department study released in 2013 found that drone pilots experience problems such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, at similar rates as pilots of manned aircraft. To cope, Black said pilots rely heavily on members of their own squad.

“Squadrons are very, very tight,” Black said. “And we watch each other’s back pretty intensely. We eat together, we play volleyball together, we work together, we hold each others kids, and we cry on each others shoulders when we need it.”

Despite the complications, Black expects the technology will quickly be adopted by other countries.

“That’s what we need to be prepared for,” he said, adding that organizations like Hamas are already using drones. “It’s coming. Everybody could see the effectiveness.”



Interview highlights

On what you can see from a drone

[The resolution] is extremely good. Some of the cameras, depending on which aircraft you’re flying, are HD. I could tell you whether someone was holding up four fingers or five fingers at times. The resolution is that good. It’s dependent on how far away you are from the subject.

On striking a human target

I would have a very visceral reaction to some of that. And [with] some of it you’re just mad, because they’re shooting at people that you care about…It’s a very strange feeling. For me it’s a rather sickening feeling, but you do what you need to do to support the people who are counting on you.

On claims that drone pilots are dissociated from the experience of war

I would say [operating a military drone] is more real to me than your average fast mover -- meaning a jet fighter -- that shows up, has 15 minutes to drop his ordinance, and then gets back to a tanker. I watched [my target] for a day, for seven days, a month. We finally struck him and then I watched the aftermath of it, and had to have my crew describe how it went. It was much more real to me than what I’d expect a fighter pilot to have seen and done. 

Image: doctress neutopia via: Flickr Creative Commons

The Life of a Military Drone Pilot - Bruce Black

Retired US Air Force pilot Bruce Black talks about his experience flying drones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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