The Lives of Drone Pilots

The Lives of Drone Pilots

It's easy to imagine that drone warfare will take on a dystopian quality, with pilots in air-conditioned rooms treating targets thousands of miles away more like the fictional characters of video games than human beings. But Elisabeth Bumiller's recent New York Times profile of drone pilots based in upstate New York puts some of these fears to rest.

The same surveillance qualities that make drones so capable of very precise strikes also result in drone pilots to becoming very familiar with the domestic lives of targets and their families. "You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night," said one pilot. "I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer," said another.

While none of the drone pilots Bumiller interviewed "acknowledged the kind of personal feelings for Afghans that would keep them awake at night after seeing the bloodshed left by missiles and bombs," they nonetheless have a close-up view unavailable to the pilot or solider operating in theater. The drones allow "a certain intimacy with Afghan family life that traditional pilots never see from 20,000 feet, and that even ground troops seldom experience." 

Bumiller aptly compares these operations to a fictional '80s-era East German Stasi officer portrayed in the 2006 film "The Lives of Others." Like the drone pilots of today, the spy becomes intimately familiar with the target of his espionage, despite never meeting him. 

The article also makes clear that drones are the future: "By 2015, the Pentagon projects that the Air Force will need more than 2,000 drone pilots for combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day worldwide. The Air Force is already training more drone pilots — 350 last year — than fighter and bomber pilots combined." And many of these new trainees, unlike most of today's drone pilots, will never sit behind the controls of a traditional combat aircraft.

Unmanned aircraft do indeed represent a new experience for the nation's pilots. But Bumiller's smart reporting shows that the brave new world of drones may not be as inhumane as one might first imagine.