Nearly half of Air Force drone pilots reported high stress levels in a new survey. The stress, linked to long and erratic work hours and a dramatic increase in the use of drones, leads to “high operational stress” for Reaper, Predator and Global Hawk drone pilots. A smaller number — including approximately a quarter of Global Hawk operators — exhibited signs of “clinical stress,” defined as anxiety, depression or stress severe enough to affect an operator’s family life or job performance.
Drone operators fly missions over Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq from bases in Nevada and California. The study — conducted by the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio — found that frequent shift-changes, “mind numbing” monotony, and increasing workloads contributed to the heightened stress levels. Between 65 and 70 percent of drone operators with symptoms of mental illness were not seeking treatment.
The dramatic growth in the use of drones in recent years has led the Air Force to increase the number of drone pilots but the ratio of pilots to drones remains low. The Pentagon has about 7,000 aerial drones and about 1,100 drone pilots. “There’s just not enough people,” Wayne Chappelle, an Air Force psychologist who helped conduct a six-month study of drone operators from 2010 to 2011, told USA Today. “You have to constantly sustain a high level of vigilance, both visual and auditory information, and that would be really tough to do when there’s a lot of monotony.”
While Lt. Gen. Larry James, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, told USA Today that he didn’t think instances of pilot error could attributed to high stress levels among drone operators, instances of pilot error and civilian deaths have increased as drone mission over Afghanistan and Pakistan increase.
In April, a Predator done killed a Marine and a medic in what appeared to be the first case of “friendly fire” from a drone. And in late October, the drone program drew more negative publicity after 16-year-old Tariq Aziz and his cousin were killed in a drone strike one day after attending a “Waziristan Grand Jirga,” an official meeting, to discuss the impact of drone strikes on communities in Pakistan.