Air Force struggles to add drone pilots and address fatigue and stress
Deep in the 60,000 acres of desert on this desolate air base, past a billboard that shows a Predator soaring in the sky, lies a high-security compound where America's drone pilots learn to hunt and kill from half a world away.
But "the Farm," as the little-known Air Force boot camp is known, faces a crisis.
Experienced pilots and crews complain of too much work, too much strain and too little chance for promotion operating the Predator and Reaper drones that provide surveillance and that fire missiles in Iraq, Syria and other war zones. Partly as a result, too few young officers want to join their ranks.
The Air Force has struggled with a drone pilot shortage since at least 2007, records show. In fiscal 2014, the most recent data available, the Air Force trained 180 new pilots while 240 veterans left the field.
"It's extremely stressful and extremely difficult," said Peter "Pepe" LeHew, who retired in 2012 and joined private industry. He called the work, which sometimes involved flying surveillance in one country in the morning and bombing another in the afternoon, "mentally fatiguing."
It hasn't helped that books, at least one Hollywood film and an off-Broadway play by the director of "The Lion King" have stigmatized drone pilots as the "Chair Force," tormented joystick jockeys who fight foreign wars by remote control and then stagger home each night.
It's a far cry from the swaggering, adrenaline-laced exploits of Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," which inspired a generation of fighter pilots three decades ago.
"All our pilots ever hear is that this work is difficult, underappreciated and fatiguing," said Col. Robert E. Kiebler, commander at Holloman. "We must change that image."
Desperate to find a solution, the Air Force is expected to unveil plans this week intended to ease the workload for drone pilots, boost their prospects for career advancement, and upgrade living and working conditions on drone bases across the United States.
The plans were developed after Air Force officials visited 13 bases and heard pilots and their commanders say drones may be the future of warfare but flying fighter jets into the blue yonder gets far more respect.
"Looking into the eyes of the pilots out there, you can tell they're tired and worn out," said an Air Force official who interviewed many of the pilots but wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "There's a feeling of hopelessness that they can't continue doing this unless something changes."
Some pilots were forced to work six days a week, they said, operating drones an average of 900 hours a year. Fighter pilots, by contrast, fly an average of 250 hours a year. The drone pilots complained as well about inadequate housing and child-care services at drone bases.
In early October, the review team gave its recommendations to Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, which oversees drone operations from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va.
The Air Force has offered a retention bonus of $15,000 a year for drone pilots to stay. It also lowered from 65 to 60 the number of drone missions, called combat air patrols, that are required each day.
That freed up pilots to help become instructors at Holloman.
Spread across the Chihuahua Desert, just east of the wavelike gypsum dunes on the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, Holloman is key to the Air Force effort to reboot its drone force.
Commanders want to train 401 new drone pilots this year — about 40 percent more than last year — in a sun-blasted cluster of air-conditioned trailers deep inside the base. That includes 80 pilots previously assigned to fly bombers, cargo planes and fighter jets.
"We've needed the help out here for a while now," Lt. Col. Steven Beattie, training squadron commander, said as he stood in the scorching heat. "Most people in this community love what they're doing. They're just getting burned out by the pace of operations."
A total of 99 new instructors will arrive over the next year, part of a buildup that will make this base the largest air crew training facility in the Air Force.
Training lasts four months. Pilots start with simulators, toggling a joystick and learning to operate the drone's high-powered cameras and sensors. They learn to avoid abrupt movements on the control panel that could break the drone's satellite connection.
From there, they begin to remotely fly Predators and Reapers over Holloman's hundreds of square miles of restricted airspace.
To provide targets, contractors built several fake towns in the desert with low-slung buildings, faux mosques and paid crews to pose as soldiers, militants and townspeople.
The trainee pilots practice scenarios that include aerial surveillance of simulated mass beheadings, suicide bombings and U.S. special forces raids.
When reporters visited on a recent afternoon, a pilot in his third month of training was ordered to find "high-value targets" previously identified in a faux intelligence briefing.
Inside the darkened trailer, facing an array of glowing computer screens, the trainee, who could not be identified under Pentagon rules, patiently flew a Reaper at 25,000 feet for more than two hours over a fake town in a so-called SCAR mission (strike coordination and reconnaissance).
A voice on his radio advised "No friendlies on the ground" as he studied images from the drone's infrared camera, switching at times to zoom lenses to pierce the clouds.
Once he spotted the targets, he called in the coordinates and focused his targeting laser on it. In a real war zone, a fighter jet could then launch a bomb.
Outside, ungainly gray drones took off and landed on a distant runway, and the unmistakable buzz of their propellers resounded off the desert floor. A Predator and a Reaper sat on a nearby tarmac for visiting photographers.
"My wife wanted to take a picture with me and the kids in front of the plane," said an instructor who couldn't give his name because of Air Force policy. "I was like, 'It's been two years since I've seen this aircraft [so close].' I've just been too busy."
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