Air Force curbs drone flights amid pilot stress, retirements

The US Air Force has a drone problem, and it doesn't even relate to the machines themselves. Instead, the men and women that pilot America's armed UAVs are burning out, thanks to the unique stresses of the job. And that is forcing the USAF to curb its drone operations in the world's hotspots.

Drone operations will be reduced from 65 sorties per day to just 60 by October, and while that might not sound like much, to Colonel James Cluff, the commander of the 432nd Wing and its drone operations, it represents "some breathing room."

The Air Force has some 1,200 drone pilots, but after flying dozens and dozens of flights per day, the strain is catching up. They're "undermanned and overworked," Col. Cluff told The New York Times. USAF officials have said that there have been 3,300 sorties and 875 strikes since August of 2014.

"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," Col. Cluff told The Times.

Backing up that statement is a 2013 Department of Defense report indicating that drone pilots are suffering depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders, just like the pilots of manned aircraft. One former drone pilot told The Times the job is "brutal, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Not surprisingly, considering the above, a large number of the Air Force's drone pilots have chosen to separate and that's hurting efforts to bolster the number of drone operators. Instructors have been pulled off training programs to pick up the slack left by the large number of retiring pilots, and that, of course, means fewer new pilots.

It's unclear how long the Air Force can stand to run at the relaxed, 60-sortie-per-day pace, but this latest development is perhaps the most obvious sign of the importance of drone operations.

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