Alamogordo, New Mexico – An Air Force Major whose real name isn't Mike orders his usual Egg McMuffin combo with black coffee at the drive-through window before rattling his Ford pickup over the railroad tracks onto highway. In the rear view the sun climbs over the mountains and the dusty New Mexico town of Alamogordo. Halfway into Mike's 20 minute commute to Holloman Air Force base, the pilot's phone vibrates on the dashboard. It's a cold call from an HR recruiter. Mike disengages politely, then shakes his head, "why the hell would they think I'd be interested in some entry level position?" This seems like a fair question, considering the growth prospects for his current line of work. In a short while, after a security checkpoint and daily briefing, he will be remote-controlling an MQ-9 Reaper drone thousands of miles away, above another dusty, mountainous area.
Just don't call him a drone pilot. The preferred nomenclature is RPA, for Remotely Piloted Aircraft. The word drone conjures images of brainless bots on autopilot, an implication not appreciated by the three person crew of pilot, sensor operator, and intelligence analyst typically tasked with the supervision of these relatively new additions to the military’s arsenal.
Classrooms at Holloman AFB are filled with recruits deploying to virtual front-lines in Nevada, South Dakota, and New Mexico. These are boom times in the RPA business, as trainees feed a growing appetite for a technology granting its wielders the power to stalk and strike targets with sanitized political, financial, and military risk. In uncontested airspace, this advantage is akin to playing a video game with a cheat code that nobody else knows. Incidentally, the number of strikes authorized by the President has spiked to 350 since Obama took office, up from 50 under George W. Bush, with an estimated 400 civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen, according to a January report from the Council on Foreign Relations. But the lion's share of drone duty consists of quieter, more shadowy work, hour after hour of monotonous ISR: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
REMOTE CONTROL STAKEOUT
RPA operators might spend days or weeks lying in wait, similar to cops on a beat. From ergonomic chairs in ground control stations - essentially souped-up shipping containers parked on the base - they coordinate with ground intel to identify suspects and track targets through high-powered-zoom lenses controlled by a sensor operator. The Air Force has even begun deploying 9-camera sensors nicknamed the Gorgon Stare able to stream full motion video over a 4km radius at high-enough resolution to see facial expressions. Said Mike, "It might be little things like a group of kids throwing rocks at goats, or at each other, or an old man startled by a barking dog…but you get a sense of daily life. I've been on the same shift for a month and you learn the patterns. Like, I'll know at 5am this guy is gonna go outside and take a shit. I've seen a lotta' dudes take shits."
This perpetual voyeurism preludes other kinds of realizations, "another time we followed this guy outside his house for half an hour, and all he did was go scoop water from a stream…seeing that just made it sink-in how we live worlds apart," said Mike. While physically separated from danger by thousands of miles, psychologically the multiplex of visual and audio data feeding an operator's LCD screens can put them much closer to the realities. Holloman AFB has counselors and chaplains on base to give support for cases of PTSD. Asked about feeling any sense of attachment to his targets after long hours of scrutiny, Mike replied, "Whether it gives me empathy or sympathy or just familiarity I'm not sure. We compartmentalize the job like anyone else."
When asked to push the button, pilots insist the distance does little to desensitize them to real life consequences. Ryan, a Captain who used to fly the B-52, said, "Oh yeah, you still get buck-fever, you know you're about to do some damage. The heart rate goes up…but we do things to calm the nerves. The main thing is repetition, so whether it's a training weapon or 2000 pound laser-guided missile it doesn't feel different." RPA pilots wear flight suits during missions and simulations, which serves to reinforce the gravity of their profession.
An award or pat on the back cannot replace the blood buzz of flying at mach speed in combat zones. Many early recruits to the program flew bombers, jets or cargo planes in Iraq or Afghanistan before being "asked" to transfer to drone duty under the impression they could be reassigned after putting in enough time. But as demand for their new skill set increased, the timelines became moving targets, and some have been flying drones so long they would require expensive retraining to fly real jets again.
"We're overpaid, underworked, and bored. What the Air Force doesn't get is that they can't throw money at us to make us happy. I didn't even know how much a pilot made when I enlisted. I just wanted to fly," said Ryan. Another former pilot named Brad, who flew the B1 bomber in Afghanistan and is now an RPA instructor at Holloman, compared it to "being transferred from marketing to the accounting department." Ryan says pilots in their predicament have taken to calling themselves the 'lost generation,' and many have become resigned to the notion that if they stay in the Air Force they might never feel g-forces in a real cockpit again.
"It's tough working night shifts watching your buddies do great things in the field while you're turning circles in the sky doing ISR," said Ryan.
In a sense, they are range-bound thrill-jockeys now managing an adrenaline deficit. The pilots interviewed for this story mostly blow off steam in typical ways; playing Call of Duty on Xbox Live, watching Archer on Netflix, practicing their piano, taking snowboarding trips, smoking Lucky Strikes, et cetera. But they also do things in their spare time like fly high performance complex airplanes, ride Harley motorcycles, and take propane tanks out into the middle of the desert to use for AR-15 target practice.
"If we can do this job from anywhere, why can't they just put the base in Hawaii?,” said Mike.
This isn't to say RPA pilots are a disgruntled lot. But for the guys and gals who followed Top Gun dreams only to be landlocked in air-conditioned containers, it requires an adjustment of expectations. By contrast, some younger operators have logged zero hours of actual flight time, though Ryan believes "the video game generation may even have advantages in some respects."
LATENCY and LAG
When a drone operator presses a button or tugs on the throttle, the data is bounced off a network of satellites before reaching the drone's "brain,” resulting in a few seconds of lag delay between input and response. For this reason takeoff and landing are handled by a team with line of sight to the aircraft to minimize risk. These "launch and recovery" crews are stationed in places like Kandahar or Saudi Arabia, and once the drone reaches stable altitude, they hand-off control to US operators to run the mission. Major infrastructure must be set up where drones actually fly: runway needs paving, satellite links need positioning, fuel needs transporting, and host-states need diplomatic coddling.
The Predator and Reaper - which are manufactured by San Diego based defense contractor General Atomics - come equipped with hundreds of pages of documentation like any new major appliance, but pilots complain of poorly written user manuals. Ryan said, "The documentation is just off the wall…it's been written by engineers to sell a product, not by pilots. It's like, if I want to turn my parking brake on, I have to dig through 6-7 menus to find the right command. In the cockpit, I reach up and the button is right there." Brad described an incident years ago where they lost control of a Predator mid-flight and had to shoot down the hapless vehicle. In the early days, accidents like this were more common - at $12.5M a pop to taxpayers - although Ryan claims that reliability for Reapers is now more "in lockstep with the F-16.”
Clearer legal and moral frameworks for drones are also still catching up with the technology. Predator drones have been in operation since the Iraq war, but public debate has only recently grabbed headlines after a Justice Department memo leaked in January defining conditions under which an American citizen can be targeted by a drone strike.
Recent documents discovered by the AP in a building used by Al-Qaeda in Mali show potential drone targets are also catching up. The papers revealed tactics used by militants to evade drone detection such as “spreading the reflective pieces of glass on a car or on the roof of the building…hide under thick trees…formation of fake gatherings such as using dolls and statues," revealing the cat and mouse nature of advancing drone technology and adaptive guerrilla tactics.
The floodgates for non-military usage of unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to start opening in 2015, when the FAA is scheduled to integrate UAVs into updated air traffic control regulations. As the pipeline of students in the Air Force's RPA program expands, future demand for experienced operators is waiting in the wings at police departments, border control agencies, and security firms. Other countries are also building up their drone infrastructure, such as the UK, Germany, France, Israel, and Turkey. Experienced American operators are likely to become a valuable asset, and the prospect of a smooth parachute into a six-figure salary in the private sector is comforting for some pilots, but for the guys who just want to get back into a real cockpit, harder choices will have to be made. Ryan said, "some guys are sacrificing their careers just to fly jets again, or taking pay cuts to go fly commercial."
You have to drive an hour from Alamogordo to El Paso, TX to reach the nearest commercial airport, and just a few stop lights outside of downtown Alamogordo the scenery begins to resemble rural ghetto. Plastic grocery bags entangled on shrubs rustle in the wind, chickens squawk from tumbleweed trailer parks, and kids on low-rider bikes swerve parabolically across dirt roads. So when the windows tremble in the middle of the night from the growl of engines overhead it's a safe bet that Holloman AFB is the origin or destination. It might be a C-17 cargo plane returning with battle weary troops from overseas, an old F-117 stealth fighter coming in for retirement, or a new model of drone testing its infrared sensors.
It is strange to imagine that on the other side of the earth, an old man in rubber sandals might be hobbling through a landscape not so alien from this one, perhaps walking miles to collect water from a river or shepherd his goats, all while a team of RPA operators here in this desert outpost track his every step on video feeds in between smoke breaks, scanning for symptoms of malice. Maybe, the old man will hear the familiar high-pitched whirring overhead and feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise, turning his gaze towards the heavens just in time to catch a glimpse of dark metal streak across the clouds, before quietly cursing the invisible spectators under his breath; a transgression undetectable by the drone’s sensors, at least for now.