Do drone pilots get PTSD?
Tim Davies is a flying instructor, public speaker and aviation consultant. He is also the author of the fastjetperformance.com blog, where, among various other things, he discusses the controversial topic of pilots’ mental wellbeing. He agreed to talk with AeroTime about how active duty pilots cope with mental health issues, the PTSD in drone operators and what the future holds for him. This is part two of our talk, stay tuned for the ultimate part next week.
In one of your blog entries you describe one source of stress and anxiety like this:
There is another form of stress that comes from being there but not being there. It comes from being unable to do anything to help, being unable to retaliate against an attack. It comes from the unfairness of it all and the loss of trust in your ability to make a difference.
These words had me thinking about PTSD cases in drone pilots. Recent research has revealed that drone operators have very high PTSD levels, despite the fact that they do not physically go to war zones or experience an actual danger. Do you think it’s comparable to PTSD experienced by military pilots?
A drone operator is a very interesting job. A lot of our pilots that we now train don’t want to fly drones in the UK and in the States and everywhere else. We do have guys and girls joining who want to fly drones. In fact, a friend of mine has stopped flying an F-16, he wanted to go and fly drones because that is where the future is. Now, it is interesting what you have said about the PTSD.
The problem with drone operators is that one minute they are flying a drone – they might be sat in America, but they are flying a drone – over the Middle East. And when their shift finishes, they get in their car and they go home. Now, this can be very deceptive. You have this contrast between the operation and the domestic experience of life.
And we saw this before, in fact, when we had Tornados based out of Germany that were going on a strike missions in Bosnia back in the 90s. They were coming back, landing at German airfields and they were going home to their wives and families having just done strike missions. What the pilots ended up doing is they said to their families that they’re being deployed and went to live on the base for the duration of the bombing, because they felt going home in the evening wasn’t good for them.
I think it is important to able to recognize what we are doing and have appreciation of the contrast between normal life and the violence that is war. And the two don’t go together. This is in effect what PTSD is. It’s that problem that we have with the contrast.
In that respect when you talk about the helplessness I wrote about in that blog post, I think that is slightly different from drone operators’ PTSD. Because they are not helpless, they are making very impactful contribution to the theatre of operation; they are helping those people on the ground by dropping bombs, or targeting or using the photographic sensors on the drone itself.
How do you manage spending a lifetime practicing for something and then never actually getting to do it?
When you have someone like myself who was over these areas where people are fighting in small pockets on the ground, and I was unable to target into them… That’s being there, but not being there. And that’s what we bring home and have that frustration. And that’s the same thing when with Special Forces, I think. They may train for a very long time, and then they’re deployed to the theatre, but they might deploy in a quiet time. And they never get to fire their weapon. And they never get shot at, they never get the war they want. Then they come home and they have no story to share with their friends in a pub. And that’s quite a big problem that we have.
A bit like an unfulfilled purpose, right?
Yes, an unfulfilled purpose. This is very natural. A lot of our senior air staff, a lot of our senior generals across the military have never experienced conflict themselves. When they came through as pilots, as soldiers or whatever they were, they never had a conflict. If you think about the nuclear submarine crew, they never had to do what they’re trained to do. As a group of people they know that.
I always thought of them as firemen on an air field. They’re not like the civilian firefighters who go to house fires. These are the people who are waiting for an aircraft to crash. And sometimes, well regularly, aircraft just don’t crash. So they never get to do what they do for real and they have to have mechanisms with which to deal with it. They do a lot of training. They talk about what could happen for real. We try and manage it, but is very difficult to manage. Because how do you manage spending a lifetime practicing for something and then never actually getting to do it?