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Report: High Levels Of 'Burnout' In U.S. Drone Pilots

December 19, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
drone_pilot.jpg
December 19, 2011 by Rachel Martin via NPR.org -- Around 1,100 Air Force pilots fly remotely piloted aircraft, or drones. These planes soar over Iraq or Afghanistan, but the pilots sit at military bases back in the United States.

A new Pentagon study shows that almost 30 percent of drone pilots surveyed suffer from what the military calls "burnout." It's the first time the military has tried to measure the psychological impact of waging a "remote-controlled war."

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, shows that 29 percent of the drone pilots surveyed said they were burned out and suffered from high levels of fatigue. The Air Force doesn't consider this a dangerous level of stress.

However, 17 percent of active duty drone pilots surveyed are thought to be "clinically distressed." The Air Force says this means the pilots' stress level has crossed a threshold where it's now affecting the pilots' work and family. A large majority of the pilots said they're not getting any counseling for their stress.

Reasons For Pilot Stress

The Air Force cites several reasons for the elevated stress levels among drone pilots. First is the dual nature of this work: flying combat operations or running surveillance in a war zone, and then, after a shift, driving a few miles home in places like Nevada or New Mexico, where a whole different set of stressors await. The Air Force says switching back and forth between such different realities presents unique psychological challenges.

Second is the issue of demand. Drones have proven to be the key U.S. military tool in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. military officials say over the past decade, there has been constant demand for more pilots to fly these platforms. While training for drone pilots has increased, there are still not enough to meet demand, and pilots end up working longer than expected shifts, keeping these planes in the air 24 hours a day.

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