by Randy Roughton
7/14/2015 - CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada -- After
working the night shift as a newly arrived remotely piloted aircraft
pilot at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Maj. Jeremy slept on a mattress
that snugly fit in his closet. He resorted to the unusual sleeping
arrangement to get the rest he needed during the day as his three
children played freely in the house.
At night, once the children were in bed, Maj. Jeremy gave his wife,
Nikki, a kiss before he began his 35-minute commute from their north Las
Vegas home to his midnight shift at Creech AFB, where he still pilots
an armed remotely piloted aircraft 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan.
Unlike deployed manned aircraft pilots, Maj. Jeremy returns home after
each shift fighting the war. However, he describes himself as feeling
like "a ghost in the morning," because he had to spend so much of his
time catching up on his sleep while the rest of the family members went
about their daily business. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments
involved missing his children's activities, such as his oldest son's
Little League baseball games and then 4-year-old daughter's first dance
"Leaving home to go to a war zone is a mindset," the former C-5 Galaxy
pilot said. "It's a huge emotional roller coaster, leaving the stressors
of my family behind and inheriting new stressors on the way to work. It
was a huge mindset change, and I had to have that capability to be able
to wear different hats, being Dad and going in and fighting the war."
Most of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing "Hunter" Airmen use their
commutes to prepare their minds to be in a wartime mindset at work, said
Col. Jim Cluff, the 432nd AEW commander.
"I ask them every time they come through that gate to have a deployed
mindset and a warfighter mentality," Cluff said. "But then I want them
to undeploy every day and every night when they drive home. It puts a
lot of stressors on our Airmen when you ask them to do that every day."
Each shift is like a police stakeout from thousands of feet away. The
pilot flies the RPA while working with his sensor operator and
intelligence analyst to look for patterns of life and day-to-day
interactions on the ground. The crews provide around-the-clock
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to troops on the
ground. In addition, the RPAs often search for high-value terrorist
targets and sometimes launch missile strikes.
"All of those (missile strike) decisions are made away from Creech AFB
and Cannon (Air Force Base, New Mexico) in the theater, as they should
be," Cluff said. "In the end, we all have a vote, as well. My Airmen
have a vote at the end of the day because they're the ones pulling the
trigger and guiding the weapon. If they're not comfortable with the
shot, they won't take it. (RPA crewmembers) are professional Airmen,
they are professional aviators, and that profession brings
responsibility. That responsibility is if I'm going to take a life
today, I'm going to take a life knowing that it's the right thing to
In addition to conducting missile strikes, RPAs are also used to gather
intelligence. That information is then collected, processed, exploited,
analyzed and disseminated through the Air Force Distributed Common
Ground System. The DCGS, which consists of 27 geographically separated
network sites, produces intelligence information from data collected by
sensors on the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-4 Global Hawk and other
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. The 480th
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force
Base, Virginia, executes worldwide DCGS operations.
RPA pilots can fly up to almost four times the average of 300 hours
flown by manned aircraft pilots. While most people connect RPAs with
protecting troops and hunting terrorist targets, they can also save
lives, as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-1 Predator did in damage
assessments and assisting aide convoys after the earthquake in Haiti in
2010. They also continue to deal with myths about the job. They
particularly dislike the word "drone," because they feel it carries a
connotation of an aircraft potentially delivering a strike without human
"Every Predator can fly for almost 24 hours," Cluff said. "That is a lot
of video to look at, and it takes a lot of people to do that. So it's a
manpower intensive operation we are involved in.
"We fly airplanes from here around the world 7,000 miles away, and
there's always a man or woman in the loop. That loop just happens to be
7,000 miles wide, and there is always somebody involved in the
Another myth many people have about RPA pilots is that they are nothing
more than glorified video game players, said Maj. Bishane, an RPA pilot
who volunteered for RPA duty.
"What I tell people is 'Yes, if you play video games, there are certain
skill sets that may translate,'" Maj. Bishane said. "'However, the
individual you're watching is a real person, and perhaps the family, and
it starts to sink in that this is a real-life thing happening, and you
have to manage your emotions appropriately. Because if a ground
commander decides you need to pull the trigger and execute the strike,
this is an individual that perhaps you've been watching for a long time,
and you start to learn about them in some respects. Now you have to
execute that strike and you may see the aftermath, in terms of a funeral
or something like that. Yes, you're looking at them through a screen,
so you're not necessarily right there. However, you start talking about
how much you're watching the target, and it becomes a more intimate
ballet with you and that target.'"
RPA pilots obviously don't face the same immediate physical risks their
counterparts in manned aircraft experience directly over their targets.
However, combat, whether from directly over the enemy or from a world
away, still delivers an emotional toll. A 2011 study at the School of
Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, found that
almost half of RPA pilots experience high operational stress severe
enough to disrupt their personal lives.
"There is a safety net physically, but emotionally we have to put up
with a lot," Maj. Jeremy said. "We have so many different roles to play,
switches to flip and different hats to wear that the emotional and
mental toughness you need to do it is sometimes as dangerous as the
physical aspect of being in the war."
Chaplain (Capt.) Zac does his part each day to help take care of the
wing's Hunter family during visits with the 432nd Aircraft Maintenance
Squadron Reaper weapons expediters, followed by chit-chats with
maintainers in an RPA hangar.
"Take it easy," he tells them as he says goodbye with a handshake. "Holler if you need anything."
The chaplain is part of a unique human performance team that combines
chaplaincy staff with a psychologist, a physiologist and a physician
that are available 24/7 to provide counseling and guidance.
"There needs to be a daily presence," Chaplain Zac said. "Sometimes I
can look in someone's eyes and say, 'Airman, you don't look like you did
yesterday.' But that means I or the chaplain's assistant were there
yesterday. That daily contact gives us the ability to notice those
things and intervene before it's too late."
Post-traumatic stress disorder amounts to a small percentage of what the
human performance team sees in RPA crewmembers. More often, they see
combat stress and relationship issues, he said.
"We're in combat. As a result, we are deployed in place, and that brings
certain stresses and difficulties in people's lives," he said. "Most of
the things we deal with are relationship oriented, but that's a part of
being away from your family so much and being in a difficult
"We have to have relationships, and the only way we can have
relationships is through access. So we have to have the same clearances
other people have. We have to be able to walk where they walk and work
where they work," Chaplain Zac said. In doing that, we build
relationships, which allows us to have proactive care rather than
reactive care. We don't just want to put people back together. We want
to prevent people from breaking in the first place."
One of the ways Maj. Jeremy stays strong is by remembering conversations
with some of the service members RPAs protected when he was deployed .
That's how he and his fellow RPA crewmembers know the importance of the
job they're doing on this small base in the Nevada desert.
Fortunately, Maj. Jeremy no longer sleeps in his closet. He now works a
day shift so he can make his son's baseball games and other family
activities. Still, there are days when he wonders if he can continue to
successfully balance his family responsibilities with the demands of a
continuous wartime mission. However, there are always those days that
reinforce the importance of the RPA mission.
"Some days, you go to work and think this is awesome," he said. "Other
days, you feel really burned out and think, 'Do I really want to do this
for another 10 to 12 years? But then I hear from some of the guys we
support and leave work in a completely different mood than when I went
Maj. Jeremy's struggle to balance mission and family is typical of the
life of remotely piloted aircraft pilots. Manning remains a critical
issue for the Air Force as MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper operations have
surged nine times in eight years. The Air Force needs 1,700 pilots but
only has 1,000 fully trained, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen.
Mark A. Welsh III. The service needs 300 newly trained pilots annually,
but is only getting about 150, with almost 250 leaving the field each
year, Welsh said.
Earlier this year, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James
announced short-term actions in an "RPA get-well plan." Those actions
included incentive pay increases and bonuses for crews, directing
additional funds to the mission, augmenting current crew manning,
increasing the number of pilot graduates and increasing the use of Guard
and Reserve Airmen, as well as contractors. Also, Secretary of Defense
Ash Carter approved resetting the combat air patrol planning guidance to
show the decrease in patrols from 65 to 60 to alleviate the RPA
community's state of constant surge. The Air Force also plans to
mobilize reserve component forces to take on three patrols and is
working on funding actions to relieve RPA crewmembers' stress. The
service recently added almost $8 million into the RPA program to
increase technical school capacity, increase reserve component manpower
augmentation days and contract some downrange and recovery efforts.