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You might not think of drone pilots as a “one of the nation’s most valuable resources,” but that’s what Senator Harry Reid called them in a recent statement. He was reacting to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report giving the Air Force a “needs improvement” grade in its treatment of RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) pilots. 

Regardless of whether you agree with drones’ value to the country, it’s pretty difficult – after reading the GAO report – to disagree that their pilots are operating within a milieu that hasn’t kept up with their specific needs. Responding to complaints from the RPA pilot community, which has tripled since 2008, Reid and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin asked the GAO to look at the Air Force’s approach to managing these pilots, along with their quality of life and promotion rates. All three areas were found to be lacking.

Here’s an excerpt from the report’s summary on crew ratios:

“Air Force guidance states that low crew ratios diminish combat capability and cause flight safety to suffer, but the Air Force has operated below its optimum (RPA) crew ratio and it has not established a minimum crew ratio. Further, high work demands on RPA pilots limit the time they have available for training and development and negatively affects their work-life balance.”

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Similarly, the Air Force appears to be aware of low promotion rates among RPA pilots, which it tracks, but hasn’t taken action to resolve the problem.

But, given the high levels of combat stress-related illnesses currently plaguing military troops returning from wars overseas, the part of the GAO’s report about “morale” is potentially the most disturbing:

The Air Force has taken some actions to address potentially difficult working conditions RPA pilots face, but it has not fully analyzed the challenge pilots face to balance their war-fighting roles with their personal lives. RPA pilots operate RPAs from bases in the United States and live at home; thus they experience combat alongside their personal lives—known as being deployed-on-station—which RPA pilots stated negatively affects their morale. While the Department of Defense has committed to maintaining high morale for service members, the Air Force has not fully analyzed the effects on morale related to being deployed-on-station, and thus it does not know whether it needs to take actions in response.

As Reid suggests, this isn’t just a huge potential problem for the country; it’s a huge potential problem for Nevada, in particular. With Creech Air Force Base a key hub for operating unmanned aerial systems such as the MQ-1 Predator, the pilots who are suffering from the lack of the Air Force’s lack of initiative are our friends and neighbors.

In the forthcoming May issue of Desert Companion, we examine what some researchers and educators are doing to prepare our state for the expected rise of drones in mainstream business and culture. As the governor – with the help of both the public and private sector – focuses on non-military applications of this emerging technology, let’s hope our federal representatives will be equally interested in the welfare of the servicemen and – women already familiar with drones’ benefits, and challenges. 

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