In the first study of its kind, researchers with the Defense Department have found that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The study affirms a growing body of research finding health hazards even for those piloting machines from bases far from actual combat zones…

…Air Force officials and independent experts have suggested several potential causes, among them witnessing combat violence on live video feeds, working in isolation or under inflexible shift hours, juggling the simultaneous demands of home life with combat operations and dealing with intense stress because of crew shortages.

“Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,” said Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the study. “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible…”

Since 2008, the number of pilots of remotely piloted aircraft — the Air Force’s preferred term for drones — has grown fourfold, to nearly 1,300. The Air Force is now training more pilots for its drones than for its fighter jets and bombers combined. And by 2015, it expects to have more drone pilots than bomber pilots, although fighter pilots will remain a larger group.

Those figures do not include drones operated by the C.I.A. in counterterrorism operations over Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.

The Pentagon has begun taking steps to keep pace with the rapid expansion of drone operations. It recently created a new medal to honor troops involved in both drone warfare and cyberwarfare. And the Air Force has expanded access to chaplains and therapists for drone operators…

Well, then, we’re all OK, right?

  1. deowll says:

    I wouldn’t think that being a drone controller would be anything like as stressful as doing real combat in person but it wouldn’t offer the same rush either…I suspect that all jobs with choices that have major real world consequences are high stress and do bad things to health. A subset of people enjoy the rush from this sort of thing and others don’t. If you enjoy gambling you might fit in.

    • Mr Diesel says:

      Correct, just about any decision making job or that would affect a large number of people would necessarily by very stressful.

      At my last job I made decisions that impacted anywhere from a few hundred to almost a half a million people and they all had a lot of pucker factor.

      When I was in the Navy it was stressful to deploy overseas for 6 months at a time.

      I would think RPV pilot would be similar.

  2. B. Dog says:

    Some people don’t like abstract things. In fact, a conscience is oh, so real.

  3. daveo says:

    I’m sure the recruiters will tell the kids all about this.

  4. MikeN says:

    So is it possible video games have the same effect?

  5. Carlos says:

    Next we’ll hear that guys get terrible PTSD everytime they stop fapping. Maybe then, Barry can create a fund to provide some support services to assist when the guy’s wrist start to ache too much. I’m sure it would be a vote winner!

  6. Mextli says:

    I just don’t see the same pucker factor for a drone “pilot” as a guy piloting an aircraft that might be blown out of the sky.

  7. orchidcup says:

    Imagine a First Person Shooter video game where all the targets are actually real people.

    You have been told by a higher authority that these people are the bad guys and need to be eliminated.

    The bad guys are equally convinced that you are the bad guy.

    You are just a human being that is killing other human beings that may or may not be a real threat to the human beings in your group, but you trust the higher authorities to make moral judgments while you are simply performing a job in order to collect a paycheck.

    This is a setup for subconscious conflicts.

  8. McCullough says:

    Who knew that killing people would be stressful…who? Ya mean it’s NOT a game?


    • orchidcup says:

      Police officers deal with PTSD when they kill someone in the line of duty defending the life of someone else or defending themselves.

      Even though the officer may have been completely justified in the use of lethal force, the killing of another human being is traumatic no matter what the circumstances may be.

  9. CPBrown says:

    But at least they can chillax at a local Nevada bar, immediately afterward.

  10. Jake says:

    Coming from playing Flight Simulator 9 and 10, the only real stress is manufactured stress. These”pilots” are sitting in a air conditioned box on U.S. soil, miles away from real combat or the threat of being bombed.

    I would make the ascertation that flying a drone would be much like playing Flight Simulator X, instead of seeing a a computer screen one would see the “real world” on a computer. It’s not the same as if you were manning a fighter over enemy territory. The ramifications for failure in a drone are not severe to the “pilot” if he were actually flying over enemy territory.

    My point is, this is silly. PTSD is caused by severe mental/emotional/physical trauma. The only “trauma” experienced by “drone pilots” is the cleaning up of coffee on their control desk. Seems ridiculous at best.


    • orchidcup says:

      Unfortunately, real life is not like a simulator or a video game where you can hit reset and try a level over again.

      You only get one opportunity to complete this level.

      Drone pilots kill civilians accidentally or as collateral damage.

      It is easy for you to say “so what?” but then you are not the person that is pulling the trigger.

      Currently there are thousands of war veterans returning home that commit suicide or abuse alcohol and drugs as they attempt to cope with PTSD.

      • Well said. This study surprises some people because it suggests that PTSD can result even when no element of personal danger exists, showing that a more primary cause might be an empathetic response to victims, especially the innocent victims whose numbers multiply when targeting mistakes are made or drone attacks executed sloppily. That’s a heavy burden, and dealing with that burden may be at the crux of some forms of PTSD. Video games may make good training exercises to develop the skill sets, but the drone pilots are well aware that this ain’t no game.

        • orchidcup says:

          Well said.

        • bobbo, the pragmatic existential evangelical anti-theist says:

          Second. Very well said and identifying the common elements.

          I thought PTSD was BS for years…… until….. I came down with a special case. I have snorkeled all over the world. Twice I have been approached by sharks that would have bit me had I not nudged them out of the way with my flippers or broom stick. No big deal, they were only curious. YEARS LATER…. swimming in my pool at home I got the overwhelming “discomfort” that a shark was coming at me. Had to get out of the poo. and only swim during the day time.


          So…I can imagine PTSD can be quite severe as it scales up from the trauma. The instant cases don’t seem like trauma to me though. Killing people would be more…. depressing than tramtic? PDSD doesn’t have a ring to it though. How about CDPK? Continuing Depression Post Killing?

          Some humans maintain their humanity even after the best training otherwise.


          • McCullough says:

            Did you mean bangstick, because broomstick just sounds a little silly.

            BTW, the shark probably wouldn’t have bitten you, California Liberals taste like shit.

          • Mextli says:

            I liked it when he “got out of the poo”.

          • McCullough says:

            Which obviously explains why they taste like shit.

            Bobbo, why do you swim in poo?

          • bobbo, the gourmand gourmet gadding gregariously says:

            That was an unfortunate typo…. proof being the “l” and “.” use the same finger.

            After the day I had to kick at the shark with my swim fins, I decided I needed more protection so after that I never snorkeled without a stick in my hand. Came in handy several times… usng the stick instead of my hand to touch things, anchor me against the water flow and so forth.

            I think both sharks would have just slowly swam up to me and bumped me if not bit me just to see what I was. Both were young. One was 6 feet, the second one was 4 feet and he had a buddy with him. I pushed him off with the stick and he turned within his body length and came at me again while is friend circled 3 feet farther away. I have seen larger sharks in the water…. they aren’t curious.

            I can no longer swim in water without good visibility. I do know whats out there. Creeps me out the shows with divers at night or in 2-3 feet visibility. Haven’t swum in a pool in a few years now either.

          • bobbo, the gourmand gourmet gadding gregariously says:

            Two more points: a stick may give some comfort in the water with sharks, but that same stick gave me no comfort at all with a 4 foot barracuda. Toothy bastard just sitting there about 15 feet away just looking for something to attract his attention. Made me uncomfortable. I look back and now there are about 20 of them. I got out of the water. Years later, I read more people die each year from barracuda attacks than from shark attacks. I don’t know how you are supposed to stop them once they decide to hit you.

            SCUBA–like flying. Introduces you to the freedom, danger, reality of strange 3D environments where you are no longer in charge of your destiny. Both improve the man. I recommend them both.

          • McCullough says:

            I only dive in clear water like the Caribbean these days, anything else seems pointless to me.

            Best to stay out of Lakes and rivers, with brain eating amoeba and monsters like this!


        • bobbo, with the panache of Steve Zissou says:

          Crap! 4 posts in a row I forgot to update my Nom de Flame with a nice little reference to the topic at hand.


          • msbpodcast says:

            Barracuda are ugly as sin but they the make up for it by being delicious!!!

            I had some in Cancun (Isla de Muheres) and it was amazing. It tasted like lobster, but without needing a bib.

          • ± says:

            I second the deliciousness of bacarruda. One evening, it was the last fish left at Six Mens fish market in Barbados otherwise we wouldn’t have bought it. What a surprise to all of us at the first taste.

          • McCullough says:

            Shark is excellent as well, I call it payback.

  11. Sea Lawyer says:

    LOL. Another drone related controversy that has recently sprung up is DoD has created a medal for drone pilots that has a higher precedence than the Bronze Star with valor device.

  12. sargasso_c says:

    Most air pilots are 6 miles away when their target is hit. A drone jockey sees the detonation and reports a description of the damage. Which might be, kinda tough.

    • McCullough says:

      So unlike a pilot who fires off a sidewinder missile and goes zooming up into the “Wild Blue Yonder”, humming the Air Force tune….these guys get to watch a televised version of little Achmed and his puppy get turned into yesterdays hamburger.

      It’s probably that scenario that haunts their dreams.

  13. fireandremember says:

    The original article (NY Times) says these ‘pilots’ might not report
    mental health issues for fear of being GROUNDED!

    I can’t believe the stress is nearly as bad without AAA and knowing
    a frayed wire somewhere in the jet might slam you into a mountain
    with no warning.

    Must be the stress of going home to the nagging wife ever night.

    • Moxeh says:

      I’d say it’s the impersonal level of it all. These are men who are forced to watch every missile strike that they send in, and report it directly back. They’re involved in the life or death of dozens of people at any time, and they’re not even there.
      Pucker factor isn’t an issue, and that might be part of the problem. There’s no complications around self preservation, active participation in a conflict, or actually operating the aircraft, as it’s sent up by a local command unit in Afganistan.
      So, this is an impersonal, high stress job where you watch someone’s life play out through a computer monitor, and the buttons in front of you controll whether they live or die, and it’s not fair to them because you’re in an air conditioned trailer ten thousand miles away.

      • orchidcup says:

        and the buttons in front of you controll whether they live or die, and it’s not fair to them because you’re in an air conditioned trailer ten thousand miles away.

        In other words, drone pilots are playing God.

  14. Glenn E. says:

    This seems like a no-brainer, to me. Did they really think the only stress of being a pilot, was being shot at? And possibly dying? Whereas piloting a drone, and not being in any mortal danger, would relieve all that stress. Very likely most pilots don’t even think about the physical danger, they’re putting themselves into. Or they wouldn’t choose to be pilots in the first place. All the most significant stress is due to mission success or failure. And to a lesser degree, perhaps developing some conscience reaction to slaughtering human beings on the ground, by directing a cold, inhuman killing machine, at them.

    This research may be more about justifying the future use of computer directed drones. Replacing human pilots completely. To which I say that there ought to be a law. Or some kind of International Convention, forbidding the use of non-human controlled weapons, to kill humans. Although technically, landmines and IEDs would qualify as those too. But I certainly wouldn’t cry over the loss of those. As they probably destroy far more innocent civilians, than soldiers. So yeah, ban them too.

  15. Kent says:

    They’re murdering people, why wouldn’t they?


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