The loneliness of the long-distance drone pilot

Aaron Sankin via The Kernel:

Bruce Black had been preparing for this moment for most of his life.

Growing up, he always wanted to be a pilot. After graduating from New Mexico State University in 1984 with a degree in geology, Black was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. He spent years as an instructor pilot before quitting to join the FBI, where he specialized in chasing down white-collar criminals, but the pull of military was too strong. He eventually found himself in the air above Afghanistan.

Black flew constantly. Once, in the spring of 2007, Black’s job was to serve as another set of eyes high above a firefight happening on the ground. An Army convoy had been patrolling near a site of a previous strike and gotten ambushed by Taliban fighters while returning to base. Black was acting as a crucial communications relay, sending life-and-death updates back and forth from the men and women on the ground to the Pentagon and a network of support staff located around the world through the military’s version of the Internet.

“I could hear what they were hearing,” he recalled. “I could hear them yell commands at each other. I could literally hear the sound of bullets whizzing by above their heads.”

And then, suddenly, something changed. A door opened and light flooded the small, boxy room he was sitting in. Black blinked as his eyes readjusted. He looked from the wall of screens in front of him and over to a man who had just walked in carrying a cup of coffee.

For a moment, Black had lost himself over the skies of Afghanistan. He was nowhere near the combat area, nowhere near the soldiers whose lives he had been tasked with guarding. In actuality, Black had been sitting in an ergonomic chair in a room that resembled nothing so much as a shipping container at Creech Air Force Base, about a 45-minute drive northwest of his home in Las Vegas.

While Black, who has since retired and now works as a consultant in the civilian drone industry, may have started his military career piloting traditional manned aircraft, he spent much of the latter part inside a drone’s virtual cockpit. During his years piloting MQ-1 Predator and RQ-170 Sentinel drones, along with some manned aircraft like the C-130 Hercules, for the Air Force, Black logged over 1,500 combat hours of flight time.

The man with the cup of coffee in his hand, the one who had suddenly transported Black back from Afghanistan, was there to relieve him. Black’s shift was over, and his fellow pilot was about take over, the drone still hovering in midair. It was time to get back in the car, drive back to Vegas, and sleep in his own bed.

“Normally, when you go to war, you go into a theater,” he explained. “You sleep in a tent every night and you walk half a mile to go to the bathroom. In the Predator world, you’re in Las Vegas. You get up in the morning, kiss the wife goodbye and drive up the base. But when you get into the box, you’re right there in the theater. You’re at war. It’s incredibly strange.”

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