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HomeMiddle EastAs Stress Drives Off Drone Operators, Air Force Must Cut Flights

As Stress Drives Off Drone Operators, Air Force Must Cut Flights

Trevor Tasin with three of his sons: John, 11; Ben, 13; and Dominic, 2. Mr. Tasin, a pilot who retired as a major in 2014 after flying Predator drones and training new pilots.
June 16, 2015

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — After a decade of waging long-distance war through their video screens, America’s drone operators are burning out, and the Air Force is being forced to cut back on the flights even as military and intelligence officials are demanding more of them over intensifying combat zones in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The Air Force plans to trim the flights by the armed surveillance drones to 60 a day by October from a recent peak of 65 as it deals with the first serious exodus of the crew members who helped usher in the era of war by remote control.

Air Force officials said that this year they would lose more drone pilots, who are worn down by the unique stresses of their work, than they can train.

“We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing, which runs the drone operations from this desert outpost about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A Predator drone on a training flight from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., in 2009.

The cut in flights is an abrupt shift for the Air Force. Drone missions increased tenfold in the past decade, relentlessly pushing the operators in an effort to meet the insatiable demand for streaming video of insurgent activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones, including Somalia, Libya and now Syria.

The reduction could also create problems for the C.I.A., which has used Air Force pilots to conduct drone missile attacks on terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, government officials said. And the slowdown comes just as military advances by the Islamic State have placed a new premium on aerial surveillance and counterattacks.

Some top Pentagon officials had hoped to continue increasing the number of daily drone flights to more than 70. But Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently signed off on the cuts after it became apparent that the system was at the breaking point, Air Force officials said.

The biggest problem is that a significant number of the 1,200 pilots are completing their obligation to the Air Force and are opting to leave. In a recent interview, Colonel Cluff said that many feel “undermanned and overworked,” sapped by alternating day and night shifts with little chance for academic breaks or promotion.

At the same time, a training program is producing only about half of the new pilots that the service needs because the Air Force had to reassign instructors to the flight line to expand the number of flights over the past few years.

Colonel Cluff said top Pentagon officials thought last year that the Air Force could safely reduce the number of daily flights as military operations in Afghanistan wound down. But, he said, “the world situation changed,” with the rapid emergence of the Islamic State, and the demand for the drones shot up again.

Officials say that since August, Predator and Reaper drones have conducted 3,300 sorties and 875 missile and bomb strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State.

What had seemed to be a benefit of the job, the novel way that the crews could fly Predator and Reaper drones via satellite links while living safely in the United States with their families, has created new types of stresses as they constantly shift back and forth between war and family activities and become, in effect, perpetually deployed.

“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home — and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home — all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman,” Colonel Cluff said.

While most of the pilots and camera operators feel comfortable killing insurgents who are threatening American troops, interviews with about 100 pilots and sensor operators for an internal study that has not yet been released, he added, found that the fear of occasionally causing civilian casualties was another major cause of stress, even more than seeing the gory aftermath of the missile strikes in general.

A Defense Department study in 2013, the first of its kind, found that drone pilots had experienced mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Trevor Tasin, a pilot who retired as a major in 2014 after flying Predator drones and training new pilots, called the work “brutal, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

The exodus from the drone program might be caused in part by the lure of the private sector, Mr. Tasin said, noting that military drone operators can earn four times their salary working for private defense contractors. In January, in an attempt to retain drone operators, the Air Force doubled incentive pay to $18,000 per year.

Another former pilot, Bruce Black, was part of a team that watched Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, for 600 hours before he was killed by a bomb from a manned aircraft.

“After something like that, you come home and have to make all the little choices about the kids’ clothes or if I parked in the right place,” said Mr. Black, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2013. “And after making life and death decisions all day, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard to care.”

Colonel Cluff said the idea behind the reduction in flights was “to come back a little bit off of 65 to allow some breathing room” to replenish the pool of instructors and recruits.

The Air Force also has tried to ease the stress by creating a human performance team, led by a psychologist and including doctors and chaplains who have been granted top-secret clearances so they can meet with pilots and camera operators anywhere in the facility if they are troubled.

Colonel Cluff invited a number of reporters to the Creech base on Tuesday to discuss some of these issues. It was the first time in several years that the Air Force had allowed reporters onto the base, which has been considered the heart of the drone operations since 2005.

The colonel said the stress on the operators belied a complaint by some critics that flying drones was like playing a video game or that pressing the missile fire button 7,000 miles from the battlefield made it psychologically easier for them to kill. He also said that the retention difficulties underscore that while the planes themselves are unmanned, they need hundreds of pilots, sensor operators, intelligence analysts and launch and recovery specialists in foreign countries to operate.

Some of the crews still fly their missions in air-conditioned trailers here, while other cockpit setups have been created in new mission center buildings. Anti-drone protesters are periodically arrested as they try to block pilots from entering the base, where signs using the drone wing’s nickname say, “Home of the Hunters.”

Correction: June 16, 2015
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the pilot who retired as a major in 2014 after flying Predator drones and training pilots. He is Trevor Tasin, not Tazin.

Christopher Drew reported from Creech Air Force Base, and Dave Philipps from New York. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

Inspectors looked at the collapsed balcony in  Berkeley, Calif.
June 17, 2015

DUBLIN — The flag flew at half-staff across Ireland on Wednesday, as the country struggled to come to terms with the tragedy that took the lives of six young people when a balcony collapsed during a party in Northern California.

The news has dominated the airwaves and informal conversations in Ireland since the severity of the accident, which took place in the early hours of Tuesday in Berkeley, Calif., became apparent.

The authorities in Berkeley have identified the dead as Ashley Donohoe, 22; Olivia Burke, 21; Eimear Walsh, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; and Lorcan Miller, 21. Ms. Donohoe, who was from California, held dual Irish-American citizenship and was a cousin of Ms. Burke’s.

Seven others were badly injured, with two believed to be in critical condition in Bay Area hospitals. Jennifer Coats, a spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department, described their condition as “very serious and potentially life-threatening.”

Five of the victims came from middle-class areas in the south of Dublin, and some of them had traveled together to work in the Bay Area for the summer on J-1 visas, a longstanding program that allows foreign students to work in the United States temporarily.

Niall Cogley, whose daughter, Clodagh, was injured when the balcony gave way, relayed her account from the hospital to a newspaper.

“From what I understand, there was a 21st,” Mr. Cogley told The Irish Independent, referring to a birthday celebration, “and there was a bunch of them on a balcony, either getting some air, or dancing, or whatever you do at a 21st. Then it just fell from the sky and they all ended up on the street, some fatally injured.”

Ms. Cogley, 21, is being treated for broken bones.

The families of those affected reportedly began to arrive in San Francisco on Wednesday morning, while tributes were being paid back home. An impromptu all-night vigil was held at the Our Lady of Perpetual Succor Catholic church in Foxrock, the home of some of the victims. Books of condolence will be opened in Dublin and in Galway.

In Berkeley, attention was turning to the reasons the balcony collapsed. In a statement, Berkeley city authorities said they were investigating the structural integrity of the fourth-floor balcony. Thirteen people were believed to have been standing on the balcony when it gave way.

Footage of the building, with what looked like rotten wooden support beams where the balcony once was, has imbued a growing sense of bewilderment in Ireland about structural standards in the United States. Many engineering experts have questioned the use of wood rather than steel for such construction, saying that such methods appear more in keeping with developing countries.

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(via NY Times)